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.