Pruitt Resigns as EPA Chief: So What?

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt resigned yesterday, after a “torrent of negative stories”– largely focusing on ethical concerns– that proved too much even for Trump, as reported by Politico, in How Scott Pruitt blew it.

(For a more complete rundown of such stories, see Columbia Journalism Review account, The never-ending Pruitt beat reaches ‘a tipping point’.)

Andrew Wheeler, attorney and former coal industry lobbyist at the law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels, who has been serving as Pruitt’s deputy, will be acting head of the agency until Trump nominates– and the Senate confirms– Pruitt’s replacement.

At the risk of seeming flippant, I ask: So what?  Will this personnel change derail the Trump EPA deregulatory agenda?

Readers might recall that prior to assuming his EPA position, Pruitt had a long record of mounting legal challenges to federal environmental policies, in his previous role as attorney general for the state of Oklahoma. Once installed at the EPA, Pruitt announced many rollbacks of previous agency policies.

But just as with his master Trump, Pruitt’s bark to bite ratio was very high, as reported in April by Politico in The Myth of Scott Pruitt’s EPA Rollback:

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s spiraling ethics scandals and perilous job status were big news this week, but he also made headlines with his latest assault on President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy. “Pruitt Announces Rollback of Obama-Era Auto Fuel Efficiency Rule,” ABC News reported. “EPA’s Pruitt Kills Obama’s Auto Rules,” the Washington Examiner put it. The New York Times analyzed how the furor over Pruitt’s behavior has overshadowed his triumphs over regulation: “For Scott Pruitt, a Spotlight Shines on His Ethics, Not His EPA Rollbacks.”

But Pruitt did not kill or roll back Obama’s strict fuel-efficiency standards; he merely announced his intention to launch a process that could eventually weaken them. In fact, Pruitt has not yet killed or rolled back any significant regulations that were in place when President Donald Trump took office. While Pruitt is often hailed (or attacked) as Trump’s most effective (or destructive) deregulatory warrior, the recent spotlight on his ethics—allegations of a sweetheart housing deal; pay raises for favored aides; lavish spending on travel, furniture and security; and retaliation against underlings who questioned him—has arguably overshadowed his lack of regulatory rollbacks during his first 15 months in Washington. The truth is that Scott Pruitt has done a lot less to dismantle the EPA than he—or his critics—would have you believe.

To be sure, the Politico piece is three months old.  So I point out that yesterday, Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Beyond Coal Campaign at the Sierra Club, endorsed its overall  thesis in a Real News Network interview :

Well, the long list of Scott Pruitt’s ethical scandals is only matched by a long list of air and water and climate regulations that he tried to roll back in his tenure at EPA. Everything from standards for how to dispose of toxic coal ash safely so it doesn’t end up in the drinking water, so you don’t have things like arsenic in your drinking water from coal ash, to the first ever climate standards that we had as a nation to reduce climate pollution from power plants. He was working to repeal and revoke those. You can talk about the safety of pesticides. You can talk about-. Really, Scott Pruitt never met an environmental regulation that he didn’t want to try to roll back or repeal. And the good news, if there is any, is that he didn’t get too far in that agenda. A lot of what he was trying to do, we believe, was illegal. And the Sierra Club and other groups were challenging him in court every step of the way. So he set a lot of bad things in motion. And we are worried that Andrew Wheeler, the number two at the EPA who is now in charge, will continue on that toxic agenda. But we also are very determined to fight them every step of the way [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]

Two points. First,  although there’s been little actual rollback so far, doesn’t mean some of the deregulatory initiatives Pruitt  set in play will not ultimately succeed. So, it’s at this point it’s premature to assess Pruitt’s deregulatory impact.

And second, even if the Trump/Pruitt/Wheeler EPA were merely to continue the previous administration’s environmental policy trends, these themselves were  an inadequate response to numerous environmental challenges, certainly those involving climate change  and plastics, to name just a couple. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll repeat that Trump’s predecessor is so often given the benefit of the doubt– even though , the EPA’s record during his watch is not nearly as impressive, fearless, nor tactically efficacious  as has been touted.

Going forward, with an EPA that’s committed to a deregulatory agenda, the onus shifts to private initiatives, and state and local regulation, to address environmental challenges. As this piece I recently crossposted from DeSmogBlog, As Industry Pushes Billion-Dollar Fracked Petrochemical Projects, State Regulators Struggle To Keep Up, makes clear, state regulators are often overwhelmed and outgunned when they try to regulate areas where federal regulators have punted.  The situation appears to be asymmetric: state regulators, including Pruitt in his previous guise as Oklahoma attorney general, have a greater ability to stymie effective federal regulation, than they do to step in effectively to offset federal inaction.

Bottom Line: How Will Policy Change Under the New EPA Head?

Until a Pruitt successor is confirmed, that’s impossible to say. Assuming the replacement is Wheeler is confirmed, what could we expect? Will the EPA’s environmental protection record improve?

Short answer: hah! Hah, hah.hah. Huge amounts of money, coming from fossil fuel interests (including but not limited to the Kochs), continue to promote a damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead path to environmental disaster. That means the basic contours of Trump policy won’t change merely because personnel does. Sadly, plenty of sailors are willing to advance an aggressive deregulatory agenda.

Indeed, an April NY Times piece, Pruitt’s New Deputy: A Coal Lobbyist Steeped in Washington’s Ways suggests that Wheeler might prove more effective at implementing Trump’s deregulatory agenda than has Pruitt, “Mr. Wheeler is viewed as a low-key insider with years of Washington experience in the art of pursuing policy change while avoiding public distraction.” (In the interests of keeping this post short, I’ve limited my quotations from other material, and encourage interested readers to read this NYT account in full. The NYT double downs on that previous analysis in this 5th July update, How Andrew Wheeler, the New Acting E.P.A. Chief, Differs From Scott Pruitt)

I also should mention in passing that we cannot expect the courts– and the Supreme Court, once another Trump nominee is in all likelihood confirmed– to intervene to deflect or overturn these initiatives.

I don’t want to suggest getting rid of Pruitt is of no consequence. Given that no matter who is chosen to be its next head, Trump’s EPA will be committed to a deregulatory agenda, the more chaos and craziness roiling the agency– including uncertainty over personnel– the less likely that agenda will be efficiently achieved. But there is both less and more to be seen here than initially meets the eye.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Expat

    We might have been better off with a crippled Pruitt in place.
    I am curious to know if Pruitt will be prosecuted or will he just slither away in the swamp? Trump has not condemned him publicly.

      1. RUKidding

        You misunderstood, I believe. I think the swamp is being increased with the lowest of the scum sucking bottom dwellers around. At least, that’s what I heard at all those campaign rallies.

        Seems to be the case.

      2. Tomonthebeach

        Yes. Absolutely Trump is draining the swamp. Slime takes up space that could make room for more grifters, grafters, and A-holes with a hate-the-world agenda.

  2. Quanka

    If this guy broke the law, why won’t he be prosecuted? Hahaha I say to myself, it is Washington after all. But seriously. How convenient for him to just resign in middle of the thicket.

  3. Bernard

    The faces and names may change but the destruction of American Society will continue. according to plan, for the few, not the many.

    as long as everything has a price and no intrinsic value, Capitalism will sell it, destroy it for a profit. it’s a club and most of us are not in it.

  4. Hamford

    Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke- also mired in ethics complaints – is damaging protections of our federal lands. A couple examples:

    Resource Company to begin extracting from clawed back Utah monument:

    Halted mountain-top removal study:

    But Zinke has at least spoken that he is not in favor of relinquishing federal control of public lands. Let’s hope these ethics complaints pester Zinke to the point where he cannot gut our federal lands as quickly, but perhaps not to the point where a superior cunning fox takes his place guarding the henhouse, a la Wheeler.

  5. RUKidding

    The names and faces may change, but the looting, rapine, plunder and pillaging will continue unabated.

    1. JTMcPhee

      And that, in a nutshell, is the history of the American Experiment in Exceptionalism. If you read the history behind the shibboleths.

  6. armchair

    When you take a $100,000 tax payer funded, lobbying trip to Morocco, you buy $1,500 tactical pants, you’re sleeping in a lobbyists townhouse, you buy $1,000 pens, you install a tax-payer funded, soundproof booth, you start to look like the kind of guy who would happily accept bribes. Of course, the whole U.S. system is full of backscratching and sweetheart deals, so maybe we should just stop caring. Maybe we should be glad to have sloppy, in-your-face corruption. Maybe we should have more leaders who empty barrels of taxpayer money and roll around in it. Is there an idea that it’s better to have a government where the nightmares are real, than a government that never lives up to its promises?

  7. cocomaan

    Given that the Obama administration presided over one of the greatest environmental catastrophes/coverups in world history, the Deepwater Horizon spill, I’ll take a bumbling EPA before I take Obama’s automatic handover of authority to the large oil conglomerates.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        During the Deepwater Horizon spill time itself, I remember reading a lot of entries here at NaCap. Some were reprinted from Washington’s Blog. I remember them painting a picture of the Obama Authorities cordoning off the area with armed personell to keep reporters away from the affected seaside zone to prevent reporting on the scope of the spill. I remember reading about the Obama Authorities permitting British Petroleum to apply several million gallons of Correxit ( chemical oil micro-dropletizer and dispersant) right at the oil emission site to disperse the oil and prevent it from emerging as a floating mass at the surface where it could be seen and counted and fines based on it. That would be the area-denial coverup and the chemical disguisement coverup.

        1. ambrit

          We lived right at the mouth of the Pearl River during the Horizon debacle. The ‘armed’ patrols we saw werte more of a police function to deter thievery than anything else. The main boat launch on the Louisiana side of the Pearl River Highway 90 bridge, near the mouth of the river, was a primary staging area for the oil recovery effort and the police forces involved. there was a lot of really valuable ‘stealable’ stuff there for months on end. The denizens of the Coast have always had a well deserved reputation for ‘entreprenuerial acquisitiveness.’ Guards were needed. As for the Correxit, well, that stuff was a major mistake from the beginning. The ‘spin’ given was that the Gulf could be too choppy for containment booms to work on surface floating oil. The rationale given the locals was that the stuff would completely disperse the oil. No one mentioned anything about how massive the spill was going to get.
          The prevailing currents there go from West to East, along the Gulf Coast shoreline. From the wellhead east was the premiere Mississippi shellfish habitats and some of the more cynical among us would assert, the Florida Panhandle tourist beaches. Oil on the pristine white sand beaches! Economic Armageddon at the beach! Etc.
          What we do remember was the occasional smell of something ‘different’ wafting ashore when the wind was right. It was a well nigh undescribeable smell; like a cross between an auto graveyard and new mown hay.
          There were constant ‘muted’ mentions in local media of giant subsurface plumes of oil. I do remember that the shellfish catches were stopped for a while, and have never recovered fully. This will be a generational problem.

        2. JTMcPhee

          They (the governments and BP) did indeed work hard to keep the few reporters who actually wanted to you know, “report,” in the dark about the events.

          Maybe you recall the imposition of a “no-fly zone” by the FAA, over the whole area, to keep “reporters” from flying over and taking pictures of the disaster area. Even reported in mainstream outlets at the time, though it’s hard to find those articles even in the St. Pete Times, which was quite active in reporting the spill. But here is one link with the FAA chart delineating the ‘excluded area” that only BP and contractor and government and govt-approved flights were permitted into:

          Here’s some reporting on the work of an attorney who has pursued Big
          Oil to validate the claims of ordinary mopes against the “oiliness” of our ruling elites:

          Only a conspiracy theorist would be concerned about “domestic no-fly zones,”right? unless one happens to be a pilot of a sailplane, a very light engineless glider that flies due to rising air currents, and you happen to stray over a “secret no-fly zone” that does not appear on any of the charts or “notices to airmen” that pilots are required by the government to use to plan their flight paths to stay in the flow of traffic and avoid certain areas — like not trying to fly a Cessna 150 or Piper Cub without a radio over a busy municipal airport or a military base. So events like the one described here are ‘not supposed to happen, in the land of the free and the home of the brave:”

    1. perpetualWAR

      Why is it “everything Obama” is conveniently forgotten?
      The Gulf still looks and smells….dead.

Comments are closed.