William Ruckelshaus, who ran the E.P.A. under Nixon and Reagan, said that Pruitt and his top staff “don’t fundamentally agree with the mission of the agency.” Illustration by Paul Sahre; photograph by Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty (man)
How the Environmental Protection Agency became the fossil-fuel industry’s best friend.
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One afternoon last April, Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, travelled to the Harvey Mine, in Sycamore, Pennsylvania, to declare that the agency had a new direction, which he called “Back to Basics.” It was an unusual place for the nation’s chief steward of clean air, land, and water to set out a policy agenda. Consol Energy, the owner of the Harvey facility, which is part of the largest underground coal-mining complex in North America, has been fined repeatedly by the E.P.A. for violations; in 2016, it had to pay three million dollars for having discharged contaminated wastewater into the Ohio River and its tributaries. Past E.P.A. administrators have spoken of creating jobs as a welcome potential by-product of the agency’s work, especially if they are green jobs, but creating or protecting energy jobs is not supposed to be the mission—protecting human health and the environment is. As the speech that Pruitt gave at the mine demonstrated, he seems to have these priorities reversed.
Pruitt, who is forty-nine, looked cheerful, as he generally does at public appearances. (He declined my requests for an interview.) Unlike many people who have joined the chaotic Trump Administration, he seems unconflicted about his new role, his ideological and career goals fitting together as neatly as Lego blocks. The former attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt ascended politically by fighting one regulation after another. In his first year at the E.P.A., he has proposed repealing or delaying more than thirty significant environmental rules. In February, when the White House announced its intention to reduce the E.P.A.’s budget by twenty-five per cent—one of the largest cuts for any federal agency—Pruitt made no objections. His schedule is dominated by meetings and speaking engagements with representatives of the industries he regulates. He has met only a handful of times with environmental groups.
At the Harvey mine, Pruitt wore a solid-red tie and, on his lapel, an American-flag pin; he briefly put on a white hard hat inscribed with the phrase “Make America Great Again.” He delivered his remarks in a sterile, fluorescent-lit room, a contrast with the audience, which was filled with miners in coal-dusted uniforms. He spoke in a precise staccato that was softened by the light Southern accent of his native Kentucky. In the speech, which Pruitt gave before touring the mine, he said, “I’m looking forward to puttin’ on those suits you’ve got on, goin’ down, and checkin’ it out and havin’ fun doing so.” He joked that whoever said you can’t have your cake and eat it, too, didn’t know “what you’re supposed to do with cake.” He insisted that you could, in fact, roll back regulations on industries like coal while taking care of the environment. But he did not point out that, as many economists have indicated, the availability of cheap natural gas has done more to eliminate coal jobs than environmental regulations have. (A month earlier, Bloomberg News had reported that Consol planned to sell off, or otherwise terminate, its coal businesses, in order to focus on extracting natural gas.)
It’s an open secret in Washington that Pruitt would like to become Attorney General if President Trump fires Jeff Sessions, and at the E.P.A. he often sounds like he’s trying out for that post, repeating a set of talking points, honed in conservative legal circles, about the dangers of “federal overreach.” In Pennsylvania, Pruitt told the miners, and a contingent of corporate executives, that “the days of our agency declaring war on your industry are over.” He went on, “It’s not right for government to do that.” Many of his comments that day sounded like rallying cries. “You guys are a handsome crew!” he declared. “The cavalry’s on the way!”
In June, Pruitt joined Trump in the White House Rose Garden as Trump announced that the United States was withdrawing from the Paris climate accord. Although there is a consensus among scientists that human activity is causing climate change, Pruitt is skeptical of this view; unlike Trump, who has called global warming a “hoax” created by the Chinese, Pruitt expresses his dissent with deliberate mildness. Last March, he told CNBC, “Measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do.” He went on, “I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see. But we don’t know that yet. We need to continue to debate, continue the review and analysis.” The E.P.A., he has said, will commence a “red team–blue team” review of climate-change science that puts “experts in a room and lets them debate.”
At an event hosted by the Federalist Society in November, Pruitt said, “I’ve been asking the question lately, ‘What is true environmentalism?’ . . . From my perspective, it’s environmental stewardship, not prohibition.” He added, “We have been blessed, as a country, with tremendous natural resources.” Previous E.P.A. administrators, he said, had promoted an inflexible philosophy of “Do not touch.”
The agency was established in 1970, by President Richard Nixon. William Ruckelshaus, its first administrator, who also led the E.P.A. under Ronald Reagan, told me, “My principal concern is that Pruitt and the people he’s hired to work with him don’t fundamentally agree with the mission of the agency. They seem more concerned about costs associated with regulations.” Myron Ebell, a climate-change skeptic who headed Trump’s transition team for the agency, praised Pruitt for concentrating on “the E.P.A.’s statutory responsibilities” and for “dropping many discretionary activities that have taken up more and more of the E.P.A.’s budget and staff time in recent years.” Pruitt argues that every E.P.A. action should be specifically grounded in a federal statute such as the Clean Air Act—fifty-four-year-old legislation that was last amended in 1990.
Pruitt and his admirers call this approach “E.P.A. originalism”—a nod to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and his reading of the Constitution. The idea is that Pruitt is sticking to “traditional” priorities, such as cleaning up Superfund sites and contaminated drinking-water supplies, rather than focussing on newer and broader environmental threats, such as climate change.
One problem with “E.P.A. originalism” is that neither our scientific knowledge nor the environment itself remains static. Rivers no longer catch fire, as the Cuyahoga, in Ohio, did repeatedly in the fifties and sixties; the skies over Los Angeles are no longer choked with brown smog; acid rain is no longer the threat it was to rivers, lakes, and wildlife; gasoline for cars is no longer made with lead, which damages children’s brain development. This progress was achieved, in no small part, because of the discretion that the E.P.A. has used to interpret laws as new ecological challenges, and new scientific understandings, arise. Every year, advancements in toxicology, technology, and epidemiology suggest new remedies. Ruckelshaus told me that it is self-defeating to insist on binding all environmental policy to the science of the past. He said, “We’ve cleaned up a lot of pollution—the air is much better, though we have three times the number of autos on the road. While you see pictures of Beijing—that doesn’t happen here anymore. Americans have the impression that because the smell-touch-and-see kind of pollution is gone, or not as intense, that we’ve dealt with the problem for good. But the environment is something you have to stay everlastingly at. Or it gets worse again.”
Under Pruitt, even the dirtiest forms of pollution are getting a reprieve. On February 2, 2014, as much as thirty-nine thousand tons of coal ash began spilling into the Dan River from a Duke Energy power plant in Eden, North Carolina. Like many utilities, the Dan River Steam Station had recently transitioned from coal combustion to natural gas, which is cheaper. But the plant still had waste ponds containing more than a million tons of coal ash; the ponds were separated from the river by an earthen dam. When a guard made his rounds that day, he noticed that the water level in the ponds was rapidly dropping, as though someone had opened a bathtub drain.