Scott Pruitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has come under increasing criticism for his efforts to roll back dozens of environmental regulations and for a swirling number of ethics controversies.
The rollbacks include efforts to weaken or repeal regulations related to climate change and air pollution, such as the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which provides carbon pollution emissions guidelines for power plants. Rollbacks also would affect other regulations, such as the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, which defines which water bodies are subject to jurisdiction under the federal Clean Water Act. EPA’s measures follow a February 2017 White House executive order on the WOTUS rule, a March 2017 executive order promoting the development of oil and gas and other domestic energy sources by reducing regulations, and other Trump administration guidance.
At the same time that Pruitt has pushed to loosen regulatory restrictions, he has also been mired in a growing number of ethics controversies. These include charges that he has misused taxpayer money on excessive personal security and on first-class airline flights and a $43,000 soundproof phone booth, that he got a sweetheart $50-a-night condo rental from the wife of an energy lobbyist, and that he has called on his security detail and EPA staff for personal errands and tasks. They have reportedly included picking up dry cleaning and moisturizing lotion, calling the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D. C., about obtaining a used mattress, and contacting the restaurant firm Chick-fil-A about business opportunities for Pruitt’s wife.
Among those at the forefront of raising the level of scrutiny of administrator Pruitt is U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.). He was the first member of Congress to issue a formal statement, on 30 March, calling for Pruitt’s resignation because of the administrator’s efforts to loosen environmental regulations and his ethics controversies. Beyer, the second-highest-ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, also was the lead signer of a letter from more than 60 House Democrats urging President Donald Trump to dismiss Pruitt. That letter also sharply criticized Pruitt for weakening EPA’s science advisory boards.
Eos spoke with Beyer about the EPA, Pruitt, the administrator’s many scandals, and where the agency goes from here. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for flow and grammar.
Eos: What disturbs you most about Administrator Pruitt’s actions at EPA?
Beyer: We spend a lot of effort pointing out all of the ethical challenges that Scott Pruitt has, just the bizarre things he’s done. But the real dilemma is what he’s done to the EPA. First, most important, there’s the rollback of so many environmental policies, procedures, and regulations put together over the years by Democrats and Republicans. And then, second, there’s what he’s done to the institution itself, with the flight of so many of the senior scientists, with morale at an all-time low. And essentially, there’s what we perceive as a serious degrading of the mission of the EPA, which is to protect the health and safety of Americans environmentally.
Eos: Do you believe that the administrator’s actions are serious enough for him to resign?
Beyer: In terms of my value system, the things he has done as EPA administrator would very much justify throwing him out. However, probably not in this administration. But I do think that he’s an embarrassment to the administration with the many, many ethical lapses, from the apartment to the lights and sirens on the way to dinner, to the misuse of taxpayer-funded staff, etc. There is a long list, which is why I think there are half a dozen or a dozen investigations into him. Just in terms of public perception, the Trump administration would be well off cutting him loose. However, I don’t necessarily think that things will improve at the EPA from the policy perspective just because he’s gone.
Eos: What do you think are some of the administrator’s most egregious actions?
Beyer: The most recent, which I think is very egregious, is the notion of ignoring a unanimous Supreme Court decision on the ambient air quality standards. There are six specific chemicals that are measured under that. The law states very clearly that the only standard that the EPA is supposed to use in setting the levels is human health. Then, after they set the levels, they can consider economic factors and other factors—sociological factors, community—in how the standards are implemented. [The standards were] tested once in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court said, yes, only human health.
Pruitt [has put forth different] guidance, saying, no, it will be human health and economic and other things, which is just wrong.
Eos: Regarding EPA rollbacks related to climate change, you have called global climate change “the existential crisis of our time.”
Beyer: I still very much believe that. I insist on being humble enough to say, If the evolution of our climate later shows us to be wrong, that we adapt just fine, that’s terrific. You have to respect that all science is contingent. We know what we know today, but it might be different tomorrow. But almost everything that we know today is that climate change is real and it’s affecting the planet in some very strange and unwelcome ways. And we’re virtually the only country in the world where there’s any debate about it at all.
Eos: What do you consider to be more worrisome: the effort to roll back regulations at EPA or the scandals Pruitt seems mired in?
Beyer: Oh, the rollbacks and regulations, by far. The scandals are discouraging to an American public that wants it democracy to be pure, clean, aspiring. It drags down faith in government when you see public officials, Senate-confirmed officials, behaving poorly. And people don’t think a lot of political leaders anyway. So that’s bad. But the things that directly affect our health are the rollbacks and the regulations.
If we get a different president in January 2021 and a different EPA administrator, the hope is that he or she will begin to rebuild our environmental protections in a constructive, sensible way. Not just a complete flip, but just looking at what you have to do to move forward again. And then obviously you hope you get somebody whose behavior is beyond reproach, who’s not using the job for their personal gain.
Eos: Yet the scandals seem to keep coming.
Beyer: And the scandals are what makes him newsworthy, because if it bleeds, it leads. And we’re all fascinated by human weaknesses and foibles.…One or two of those things, people would probably forgive. When it’s 8 or 10 or 12 or 15, then you start to say he’s probably violated a bunch of ethics rules and maybe the law. He’s certainly a bizarre addition to the Washington public establishment.
Eos: How much damage do you believe that Administrator Pruitt is causing the EPA and, beyond that, to the health of the American public?
Beyer: I think he’s causing great institutional damage to the EPA. It’s made worse by the weird adventures outside the office. But just what he’s doing inside the office is the real damage. Because people are incredibly dispirited and unmotivated that they have a leader who isn’t committed to the same mission that they have, which is protecting the environmental health of the American people. And it will take some time to rebuild.
Beyer: When someone in your own party becomes an embarrassment, it generally makes sense to respect the old wisdom that your first loss is your best loss, that the sooner he’s gone, the more quickly the embarrassment ends and you don’t have yet another front-page story.
Eos: Aside from the scandals, do you think that Administrator Pruitt is basically doing what the administration and its political base want, in terms of regulatory rollbacks?
Beyer: He’s certainly doing what the fossil fuel producers, and probably the coal miners, want. So if you’re [Congresswoman] Liz Cheney representing Wyoming, where some whopping percentage of the budget is coming from fossil fuels, yes, he’s doing exactly what they want. And that may be why he’s still in place: that the Koch brothers [conservative and libertarian activists], etc., may have enough influence with the president to say, He may be an embarrassment, but he’s doing what we want.
Eos: Do you think that Administrator Pruitt will be pushed out?
Beyer: The conventional wisdom is that he will be pushed out, but the conventional wisdom has been broken so many times in the last year and a half that I’m reluctant to rely on it.
Eos: If Administrator Pruitt leaves and EPA deputy administrator Andrew Wheeler takes charge, would that be preferable?
Beyer: My expectation would be that you would have a continuation of the same bad policies but with a lot more political sensibility. If [Wheeler] was asking me, I would say, Don’t do any of the showmanship-type things that Scott Pruitt did. Go do your humble best to lead the agency.
And perhaps, and I don’t know, Wheeler would have an opportunity, as [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo has at State, to try to rebuild the morale of the people of the EPA. It may not be possible, but I sure hope he tries….But I wouldn’t expect that he’s going to suddenly become a champion for a stronger Clean Water Act and a stronger Clean Air Act. He’s still going to follow that deregulatory process that is under way right now.
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer