Can Scott Pruitt Change the Climate of the EPA?

Can Scott Pruitt Change the Climate of the EPA?

By Sean Braswell

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt is President Trump's pick to run the EPA.
SourceT.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images


Because Donald Trump’s choice to run the Environmental Protection Agency has spent the past several years running at it.

By Sean Braswell

The year 1970 was a banner one for the environment. Following on the heels of the Apollo 11 astronauts’ remarkable footage of a beautiful blue planet bathed in clouds, millions of people participated in the first Earth Day in April. That same year, Republican U.S. president Richard M. Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, and the president’s choice to become the agency’s first administrator — an Indiana Republican named William Ruckelshaus — went before the Senate to proclaim its new mission: recognizing that because many environmental problems cross state borders, “we must have a firm enforcement policy at the federal level.”

Now, enter Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a toddler back in 1970 and likely soon to be the agency’s next administrator — one who is whistling a very different regulatory tune. “Federalism matters,” the Republican nominee declared in his own confirmation hearings before the Senate last month, noting that “our state regulators possess the resources and expertise to enforce our environmental laws.” If confirmed, the 48-year-old Pruitt could bring a very different philosophy to the EPA and preside over a dramatic shift in the agency’s role in environmental enforcement in the coming years.

Pruitt is interested in a more collaborative approach between the agency and the industries it regulates.

Pruitt’s belief that many environmental protection issues would be better handled by the states is not just empty confirmation talk. He has spent the past six years as Oklahoma’s chief legal officer pursuing his philosophy in practice, and has made no secret of his dislike for the agency’s “command-and-control kind of approach.” Pruitt’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but his own official website biography says he is “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda,” establishing a “Federalism Unit” in his home state to counter perceived federal overreach on everything from the environment to health care to immigration.

The Kentucky native and former college baseball player at the University of Kentucky earned a law degree from the University of Tulsa before serving as a state legislator in Oklahoma, as well as a lawyer, co-owner of a minor league baseball team and attorney general there since 2010. If you grew up in the South, Pruitt looks — with his closely cropped gray hair, squinty eyes and Cheshire grin — like half the Caucasian men you might see in church on Sunday. As state attorney general, he has sued the EPA 14 times challenging federal environmental regulations (according to the New York Times, the co-parties to 13 of those suits included companies that had contributed to his campaign in some fashion).

Pruitt’s coziness with industry is perhaps understandable in a state where energy companies form a major part of an economy that has doubled its oil production over the past decade. At the same time, however, the Sooner State has gone from experiencing roughly two earthquakes per year in 2008 to two per day, which many scientists attribute to the disposal of wastewater generated by increased fracking in the state. And the irony of the chief legal officer of a state undergoing an industry-aided seismic throttling now becoming the chief environmental steward of the nation has been too much to handle for many environmentalists, especially combined with his view that climate change is “far from settled.” Putting Pruitt in charge of the EPA, the Sierra Club recently said in a statement, “is like putting an arsonist in charge of fighting fires.” 

Many experts also see Pruitt’s state-focused environmental approach as impractical — and harmful — given that just about every state is downwind or downstream of another’s pollution. “Pollution doesn’t respect state boundaries,” says Patrick A. Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at Vermont Law School. “We know what happens when states have total control: dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico; acid rain in the Adirondacks; carbon pollution of the atmosphere and the oceans.”

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Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) questions Scott Pruitt during the nominee’s confirmation hearing.

Source Stephen J. Boitano/LightRocket via Getty Images

For his part, Pruitt is interested in a more collaborative approach between the agency and the industries it regulates. “The American people are tired of seeing billions of dollars drained from our economy due to unnecessary EPA regulations,” Pruitt said in a statement after his nomination, “and I intend to run this agency in a way that fosters both responsible protection of the environment and freedom for American businesses.” 

Other experts see Pruitt’s approach to the EPA, under a Trump administration, as more of a revival of its early iterations — one that “returns to a model of the EPA from the early origins of the agency,” says Ronald Keith Gaddie, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma. Based on Pruitt’s litigation record, Gaddie says we should also expect an EPA that is less likely to intrude on highly localized farming and agriculture, as well as a return to Reagan-era block grants to state implementation — not unlike when Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s mother, Anne, ran the agency in the early 1980s.  

Like Pruitt, Gorsuch set out to curtail the EPA’s range of influence and transfer more power to the states. She succeeded at slashing its budget by nearly a quarter and dramatically reducing the number of cases filed against polluters, but her tenure was also marked by major rifts within the agency, and a scandal over her mismanagement of a Superfund cleanup program ultimately forced her to resign. It remains to be seen whether a similar fate will await Pruitt. At the moment, as Parenteau points out, we mostly know what Pruitt does not support when it comes to federal regulation of industry. “The question is, what does he support?”