How Scott Pruitt created such a mess at EPA
By Keith Gaby, opinion contributor
What does it say about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that he repeatedly flew first class, wasting taxpayer money and creating a new scandal for the Trump administration? It’s initially difficult to understand why Pruitt, an ambitious politician and careful lawyer, would make such a huge unforced error.
But Pruitt’s history suggests it is less of a blunder than the natural outcome of how he has built his political career.
In congressional testimony, Pruitt’s answers are often focused on legalistic posturing, rather than the actual intent of the law. At EPA he sought and received waivers to work on rules he had challenged as a litigant and made decisions that benefitted companies which have contributed money to further his political career. It seems meeting the letter of the law – which he claimed to do – meant it was fine to engage in actions that were an obvious conflict of interest.
So he likely considers it entirely proper to travel in luxury as long as he obtains the proper waiver. It seems unimportant to him whether this is ethical behavior for a public servant, as long as he believes he can argue it is legal.
Pruitt is also deeply ideological, believing government rules hamper the free market. He has rashly canceled a range of Obama-era health safeguards and pollution limits without properly taking public input. However, the courts keep telling him he acted improperly. He seems to believe his views are so important that cutting corners to get his preferred policy outcomes is fine.
If you believe that you are doing such important work, you likely have the tendency to develop a sense of entitlement: that you can’t be bothered with the public (in coach) and that it’s worth the extra money to be able to focus on your surpassing important mission (in first class).
It is, in short, a deep sense of entitlement – a feeling that the spirit of the rules may be put aside in service of your higher purpose.
More importantly, Pruitt believes his real audience is far narrower than the coach-flying public. Rather, it seems he looks to the CEOs in first class, on whom he has lavished so much attention. His hand-picked efficiency expert even created a video in his former position explicitly saying the “customer” for environmental officials is not the “general public because they benefit from clean air” but businesses. That likely sums up Pruitt’s view of government.
But what Pruitt forgot is that members of Congress live by the opposite set of rules, and are accountable to those same economy class constituents – hence the inquiry into Pruitt’s actions by the GOP controlled House.
Why would such a careful politician not see the danger in a “let them fly coach” attitude? After all, Pruitt is most definitely a political animal. He served in the Oklahoma state House and Senate and as attorney general, lost races for Congress and lieutenant governor, and is widely rumored to want to run for Sen. James Inhofe’s (R-Okla.) seat.
But almost all of his experience is from Oklahoma – an essentially one-party state, where scrutiny is much lower, especially for someone leading the charge on conservative issues.
Pruitt may have thought that being the tip of the spear in dismantling Obama’s environmental agenda would excuse ethical transgressions. And for a while, it did, as the White House looked the other way at some of Pruitt’s scandals (the EPA’s Office of Inspector General currently has three ongoing investigations into his activities). But Washington, with a lively opposition party and active press corps, is a different place. Wasting public money – especially to sit apart from the average American taxpayers – is a political drag for a White House.
There is also one more, even less flattering, reason for Pruitt air travel indulgences. Pruitt’s chosen career, politics, is not lucrative. But he’s always seemed comfortable grabbing what luxuries his connections could afford. When he was a $38,000 a year state legislator, his friend Albert “Kell” Kelly – who ran a family bank – lent Pruitt money for a fancy house. Kelly also lent him money to become part owner of a minor league baseball team, helping the former college second baseman live out a dream. (Kelly, barred from banking by the FDIC, now works at EPA.)
Pruitt is accustomed to conventions at fancy hotels paid for oil and gas companies who have funded his political rise. It seems likely that someone who had always used his position to add a little style to his life didn’t think it a big deal to get some extra leg room and a free glass of champagne on the taxpayers’ dime.
It’s time for Trump to listen to the bipartisan calls for Pruitt to leave government. The good news for Pruitt is, flying first class is just fine in the private sector.
Keith Gaby is senior communications director (climate, health and political affairs) at Environmental Defense Fund.
How Trump is letting polluters off the hook, in one chart
Civil penalties collected by the EPA fell by more than half in Trump’s first year in office.
By Umair Irfan and Christina Animashaun
In his first year as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt has made a huge mark, shrinking his agency and repealing as many Obama-era environmental regulations as possible.
He’s also overseen a drastic slowdown in the day-to-day work of the agency. Key offices remain vacant and the implementation of new environmental rules has stalled, effectively throttling the agency.
But one of EPA’s most important jobs is to enforce civil penalties for companies that breach limits for hazardous chemicals like sulfur dioxide and hydrochloric acid. And one new measure of Pruitt’s foot-dragging that’s just emerged is how much money EPA has been collecting from polluters lately.
According to a new report from the Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog group that advocates for enforcement of environmental laws, the amount of fines collected by Trump’s EPA has plummeted compared to the agency under the past three presidents in their first year in office.
The fines come from consent decrees, a type of legal settlement where a party has to take a specific action but does not have to admit fault or liability. The consent decrees here involve violations of federal environmental laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. (This tally doesn’t include penalties from EPA’s Superfund program, criminal cases, or the administrative actions that EPA takes to resolve smaller violations.)
The number of civil cases filed by the EPA to collect these fines in the first place has also declined. In President Clinton’s first year, there were 73; under Bush, 112; under Obama, 71. In 2017, there were just 48 cases.
What this means is that the EPA is not going after polluters like it used to.
“Less enforcement doesn’t mean there aren’t a whole lot of violations that are out there,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, who led the civil enforcement office at the EPA under Presidents Clinton and Bush, in a call with reporters.
He noted that many of these civil cases take months to complete, so some of the cases completed under Trump started under Obama. In a consent decree reached with Exxon Mobil last October, the EPA boasted that the company would spend $300 million to install pollution controls, but Schaeffer noted that this total includes measures installed as far back as 2013.
And it’s likely enforcement will decline further for ongoing environmental investigations.
“Many of those cases will drop out of sight if Congress agrees to cut the agency’s enforcement budget by 17 percent, as President Trump has proposed,” according to the report. “Enforcement matters, especially to the people who live and work next to plants that continue to release more pollution than the law allows.”
Court Orders Trump Administration to Enforce Obama-Era Methane Rule
A federal judge reinstated a widely supported methane waste rule that President Trump’s administration has repeatedly tried to stop.
Judge William Orrick of the U.S. District Court for Northern California ruled Thursday that Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) decision to suspend core provisions of the 2016 Methane and Waste Prevention Rule was “untethered to evidence.”
Orrick ruled that the plaintiffs—California, New Mexico and environmental groups—have shown “irreparable injury caused by the waste of publicly owned natural gas, increased air pollution and associated health impacts, and exacerbated climate impacts.”
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra celebrated the news in a tweet:
Judge Orrick, an Obama-appointee, also blasted the BLM’s decision to postpone the methane waste rule in that it failed to point to any factual support underlying its concerns, and also rebuked Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke’s refusal to consider public comments related to the rule.
The Obama-era regulation was finalized in November 2016 and went into effect in January 2017. The rule limits methane pollution from oil and gas operations on public lands. Not only is methane is a potent greenhouse gas that’s 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, accidental leaks and intentional venting and flaring costs more than $330 million each year.
The Wilderness Society noted that the Trump administration has now tried and failed its four attempts to stop implementation of the “commonsense” rule. The group listed the three other times as follows:
1. Jan. 16: Wyoming District Court denies industry trade groups and several states request for preliminary injunction, to prevent the rule from going into effect.
2. May 10: The effort to kill the methane rule via Congressional Review Act fails with bipartisan support, 51 to 49.
3. Oct. 4: California court overturns the Interior Department’s decision to unilaterally suspend many of the most important protections of the methane waste rule without providing any opportunity for public comment.
“The continued attempts to repeal the rule are baseless, and we should instead be focused on implementing the rule we’ve got as this decision makes clear,” said Chase Huntley, the organization’s energy and climate program director.
According to E&E News, “Orrick issued a preliminary injunction requiring BLM to fully enforce the regulation. The agency just released a broader proposal for a permanent rollback of most of the rule’s provisions, but that plan won’t be finalized until April, at the earliest.”
BY Lorraine Chow
‘Blended Burger’ Allows a Simple Shift to More Sustainable Eating
By Richard Waite, Daniel Vennard and Gerard Pozzi
Burgers are possibly the most ubiquitous meal on Americans’ dinner plates, but they’re also among the most resource-intensive: Beef accounts for nearly half of the land use and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the food Americans eat.
Although there’s growing interest in plant-based burgers and other alternatives, for the millions of people who still want to order beef, there’s a better burger out there: a beef-mushroom blend that maintains, or even enhances, that meaty flavor with significantly less environmental impact.
New Black Lung Epidemic Emerging in Coal Country
In a study released this month by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), federal researchers identified more than 400 cases of complicated black lung in three clinics in southwestern Virginia between 2013 and 2017—the largest cluster ever reported.
However, the actual number of cases is likely much, much higher as the government analysis relied on self-reporting. An ongoing investigation from NPR has counted nearly 2,000 cases diagnosed since 2010 across Appalachia.