A series of leaks this week has triggered a tsunami of damning revelations about Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.
There was news of what appear to be major improprieties: his too-good-to-be-true condo deal from a lobbyist friend, his circumvention of the White House to get two aides substantial pay raises, and his demotion of staff who questioned him.
And then there were the extremely telling accompanying details: that Pruitt fell behind on his suspiciously low rent. That he replaced the head of his security team when the official hesitated to use lights and sirens in Pruitt’s motorcade to speed ahead of traffic when he was late to events, like dinner at Le Diplomate, a French restaurant in Washington, DC. That one of the aides who got a pay bump was helping Pruitt find housing while on the clock, a violation of federal rules.
Now three House Republicans have called for Pruitt’s resignation, and environmental groups have launched a campaign to Boot Pruitt out of office.
Yet he still has the support of President Donald Trump. Why? Because Pruitt gets things done.
In fact, in a White House facing unprecedented turnover, leaks, and scandals, Pruitt’s activity at the EPA seems to be shielding him from being fired.
Over the past year, Pruitt has undone or started the process of repealing at least 22 regulations while attempting to delay implementation of several others — what could be considered solid performance in an administration that has struggled to advance its agenda.
And even this week, while scrambling to defend himself, Pruitt managed to announce a huge rollback in Obama’s fuel efficiency standard for cars and trucks, make himself the center of decision-making on water quality issues, and plan more changes to air quality standards.
Here are the big developments at EPA that will have real consequences for the long-term health of Americans, and for the climate, that were overshadowed by the scandal coverage this week. The EPA did not respond to requests for comment.
Pruitt made himself king of the Clean Water Act
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an environmental advocacy group for government workers, published a startling memo showing that Pruitt made himself the final authority on decisions surrounding the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act, the central federal law governing water pollution.
“With this revised delegation, authority previously delegated to regional administrators to make final determinations of geographic jurisdiction shall be retained by the Administrator,” Pruitt wrote in the memo.
Typically, many of the decisions around big, complicated regulations like the Clean Water Act are delegated to EPA’s regional offices, according to Betsy Southerland, who led the science and technology division at the EPA’s Office of Water before resigning last year. That’s because determining things like what is an appropriate limit for chemicals in water depends on specific local circumstances. The agency’s field workers tend to have a better grasp of the particulars than the people in headquarters.
But now Pruitt has made himself the final judge in one of the most controversial aspects of the Clean Water Act: deciding what waters fall under federal jurisdiction. The determination can make or break energy, real estate, or agriculture projects, forcing them into a higher category of permitting and regulations.
Usually, the US Army Corps of Engineers decides what falls under federal jurisdiction, but the EPA’s regional offices step in when the case is complicated or controversial. This is usually rare, but when it happens, there are often lawsuits and lots of money involved.
Now Pruitt has the sole authority to veto projects.
“The big fear on this Clean Water Act [memo] is he would only listen to the industry and he would not listen to the local people,” Southerland said.
The move also positions Pruitt to dismantle the Clean Water Rule, a regulation proposed in 2015 to clarify what falls under federal oversight. The proposal drew outrage from farmers and land developers who saw it as government overreach, so Pruitt put it on hold for two years.
The EPA is lifting regulations on the largest source of greenhouse gases
The transportation sector now tops power generation as the biggest carbon dioxide emitter in the United States. But the EPA announced Monday that it was revising fuel economy and emissions standards for cars and light trucks, arguing that the rules put in place under President Barack Obama were too restrictive.
“This is another step in the president’s deregulatory agenda,” Pruitt said as he announced the decision.
The original trajectory required automakers to average roughly 36 miles per gallon across their offerings by 2025, avoiding 570 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, but some carmakers groused that meeting that target would be too expensive or require them to make cars that no one wants to buy.
The EPA is rolling back fuel efficiency standards
“They’ve fought against federal fuel economy regulations for 40 years,” said David Cooke, a senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “That’s part of the reason why we saw stagnation of 30 years of where fuel economy standards haven’t changed.”
The decision to revise the fuel economy standards is a boon to manufacturers making bigger, dirtier cars and trucks. It will hurt companies making cleaner vehicles like Tesla, whose cars beat the pollution standards and generate compliance credits. Cleaner manufacturers sell credits to companies with dirtier cars, and a lower emissions standard could make the market for credits dry up.
It also means fuel efficiency across US cars and trucks will likely stagnate once again, stalling progress on reducing air pollution and fighting climate change.
Next target: clean air
Pruitt told the Washington Times on Wednesday that he was planning to announce a major revision to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards on Friday with an executive order.
These rules under the Clean Air Act set airborne limits for six pollutants including lead and ozone and flags parts of the country that fail to attain these standards.
On Thursday, Pruitt skipped off to Kentucky (once again without announcing it in advance), to meet with state air quality regulators. According to a press release, the EPA is aiming to “reduce the number of nonattainment areas by approximately 20 percent.”
Under the Obama administration, the EPA started the process of setting a stricter limit for ambient levels of ozone under NAAQS, which means many more areas of the country would be classified as nonattainment areas and would have to work harder to comply with the rules. Republican lawmakers have tried to pass bills delaying the new standards from going into effect.
But here, it seems Pruitt’s scandals are slowing him down, at least for now. E&E News reported that the NAAQS executive order announcement was called off, likely due to the controversy around Pruitt.
The White House referred questions to the EPA, which in turn did not respond to requests for comment.
Conservatives are coming to Pruitt’s defense
In the meantime, conservatives in Congress and the media have rallied around Pruitt, and conservative and libertarian advocacy groups like FreedomWorks are campaigning to save his job.
Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul also publicly voiced support for the EPA administrator. Another big issue is that getting someone made in Pruitt’s mold through the Senate confirmation process as a replacement is unlikely. The person nominated to be Pruitt’s deputy, fossil fuel lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, still hasn’t been confirmed yet.
As for the administrator himself, he brushed off the concerns as desperate attacks from the left.
“We’re getting things done, and that’s what’s driving these folks crazy,” Pruitt told the Washington Times.