Scott Pruitt, newly anointed head of the EPA, stunned the world last week with his admission that he doesn’t believe that carbon emissions contribute to climate change. Is he fit to lead the government agency?
If you look at his professional career, in which former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt has sued the EPA 14 times, it would appear that he harbors a deep seeded resentment for the agency, which is ironic given that he has recently become its Administrator.
Former EPA head Gina McCarthy has commented that she has seen many kinds of agency Administrators, but Pruitt is the first she has seen who has “no commitment to the mission of the agency,” an allegation that is playing out all too painfully as he unfolds an unnerving agenda.
Since he has taken office, Pruitt has made it abundantly clear that he plans to systematically dismantle the EPA, methodically peeling back environmental regulations one by one, and, in so doing, liberating our free market from their heavy burden.
He is already populating the agency with like-minded climate skeptics, including Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson, who formerly served under Congress’ most prominent climate denier, James Inhofe, and Andrew Wheeler, a former fossil fuel lobbyist.
From all accounts, the EPA’s new management team seems to be in direct ideological conflict with existing agency employees, most of whom are scientists, environmentalists, and career staff who joined the agency with the overt mission to protect the planet. Could this be a recipe for contention and stalemate of disastrous proportions?
Pruitt certainly isn’t wasting any time in his pursuit to emasculate the agency. Last week he began the legal process of repealing the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) regulation, implemented by President Obama to increase the federal government’s authority to monitor and reduce pollution in rivers, streams, and wetlands. The regulation put certain sectors—including the building industry—in a tailspin, arguing that the government had overstepped its authority by implementing a rule that puts undue hardship on businesses.
Pruitt also halted a program that required oil and gas wells from collecting data on methane emissions (a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide), and he is expected to begin an organized attack on the Clean Power Plan, designed to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants.
This week, under executive order, Pruitt’s witch-hunt continues, demolishing the landmark carbon pollution standards for light duty vehicles for model years 2022-2025, despite a mountain of evidence submitted by the EPA that these standards will play a substantial role in reducing carbon emissions, as well as clear research conducted by independent consumer groups that show the positive impact that these standards have on all Americans, including thousands of dollars in net savings for vehicle owners.
According to Rhea Suh, President of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “This change makes no sense. Mileage standards save consumers money at the gas pump, make Americans less dependent on oil, reduce carbon pollution and advance innovation. The current standards helped the auto companies move from bankruptcy to profitability, and there is no reason they cannot be met.”
The EPA is undoubtedly in turmoil, with a projected near-term budget cut of 31% or $2.6 billion, bringing the agency’s budget to its lowest level in over 40 years (adjusted for inflation.) Jobs at the EPA are expected to be reduced by 20%, leaving an estimated 15,000 employees in the lurch.
Not surprisingly, EPA employees report that morale within the agency is at rock bottom, especially given that many of the same scientists and lawyers who worked on (and celebrated) advancing environmental regulations may soon be ordered to execute their repeal.
Certain pundits assert that the profound budget cuts represent political posturing rather than a clear and comprehensive strategy for dealing with our nation’s problems, an argument that may be justified given that the EPA will be the hardest-hit agency under the White House’s recently devised “skinny” budget.
Irrespective of any strategic chess playing, Democrats and Republicans alike believe that many of the Administration’s efforts to repeal existing environmental regulations will be dead on arrival. For example, the executive order requiring agencies to repeal two existing rules for every new one they adopt is, apparently, unconstitutional (the Natural Resource Defense Council is suing to have the executive order declared illegal).
Out of all of the objectionable moves that Pruitt has made in his short time at the EPA, perhaps the most egregious one occurred last week when he denied that carbon emissions are the main contributor to climate change.
The absurdity of his claim was highlighted by the fact NASA and NOAA recently issued a report that temperatures in 2016 were the warmest ever on record. The report avows that the planet’s temperature has increased by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, “driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.”
Interestingly, Pruitt’s stance on carbon emissions was a flip-flop from written testimony that he submitted during his confirmation hearings, when he affirmed that he believes that the EPA administrator “has an important role when it comes to the regulation of carbon dioxide.” He agreed to fulfill that duty “consistent with Massachusetts v. EPA and the agency's Endangerment Finding on Greenhouse Gases respective of the applicable statutory framework established by Congress."
Pruitt’s reference to the EPA’s Endangerment Finding (established in the Massachussets v. EPA Supreme Court case) clearly led Congress to believe that he acknowledged and understood that carbon pollution contributes to climate change. The only explanation for his distressing turnabout is mounting pressure from the fossil fuel and automotive industries.
According to Liz Perera from the Sierra Club, “Pruitt has proven that he is unfit to do the job of protecting the American people from toxic pollution and he misled Congress repeatedly during his confirmation process. For these reasons, he ought to resign. If he refuses, the Senate should take action on its own and remove him from his position.”
Even fellow Republicans were dumbfounded by Pruitt’s rebuke of science, perhaps best articulated by Mayor Jim Brainard from Carmel, IN, “I am not a scientist but I believe we need to pay attention to what people who have dedicated their lives to a field of study have to say. I am disappointed by the risky and extremely reckless approach taken by Administrator Pruitt when he challenges the scientists’ conclusions that humans contribute to global warming. A true conservative would cautiously take the position carefully researched by the scientific community as correct. A true conservative would hesitate to risk our future on nonscientific opinions. A true conservative would be prepared for the worst.”
No doubt, Pruitt’s actions, in conjunction with the Administration’s movement away from environmental protection, is isolating the U.S. in a world that is increasingly committed to climate action. Even nefarious polluters China and India have enacted sweeping measures to combat the vile air and water pollution that plagues their once majestic cities and countrysides.
Yet political leaders in Washington seem determined to cede our global leadership position and abandon our moral authority when it comes to climate action. They don’t seem to mind that their actions are quickly—and possibly irreparably—eroding the hard-fought progress made during the negotiations that led to the Paris Agreement.
Nature photographer Ansel Adams hit the nail on the head when he said, “It’s horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.”
How do you think we can combat Pruitt’s systematic dismantling of the EPA and the White House’s desire to abandon climate action? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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