As the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt is technically a government employee, but he tends to act as if he's on the payroll of whatever corporation has rented him for the day. In 2014, as Oklahoma's attorney general, he dutifully put the words of an energy company objecting to regulations on his own letterhead before passing them on to the Obama administration. Last year, in his new role as EPA administrator, he appeared in a video produced by a beef industry trade group aimed at fighting the Clean Water Rule. He's spent his tenure meeting with energy companies who are also big Republican donors and stocking the EPA's Science Advisory Board with industry-friendly figures, one of whom thinks ozone pollution doesn't matter because “most people spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors.”
If you are concerned about the quality of the country's air and water, not to mention climate change, these things probably worry you. But Pruitt himself likely doesn't care, as he's publicly voiced doubt that carbon dioxide is driving climate change, a view contradicted by the scientific consensus. He's even said that maybe climate change could be a good thing. Though Pruitt has also claimed to believe climate change is real, like the rest of the Trump administration, he seems to be fine totally ignoring and even exacerbating it—the consequences be damned.
Now is as good a time as any to assess Pruitt's record because there's widespread speculation he could be forced out in the near future. But not because he's bad at his job, per se. In the past few days, it's emerged that Pruitt got a sweet rental deal on a condo owned by the wife of an energy company lobbyist—a lobbyist whose client got a pipeline approved by the EPA last year. It also came out that he used a bureaucratic maneuver to give a pair of favored aides massive raises; when questioned by Fox News, Pruitt denied knowing about the raises, adding that he reversed them and didn't know who approved them—a pretty weak response, to say the least. And this comes on top of allegations that Pruitt had been overspending on security details and first-class plane trips.
Pruitt has attempted to do some damage control by giving interviews to conservative outlets, but that hasn't stopped calls for his resignation, which are now coming even from some Republican members of Congress. At this point it wouldn't be surprising if Pruitt joined the long list of former Trump officials who have quit or been pushed out.
But even if he leaves this week, Pruitt will leave behind more than a paper trail of apparent corruption—he'll enjoy a legacy of environmental atrophy that's almost impressive in scope. He has overseen buyouts and budget cuts at the EPA, rolled back rules that included restrictions on toxic coal-ash, and most recently declared that California should no longer be allowed to set its own car emission standards, a decision that the state plans to challenge.
The EPA has overseen weakened regulations under other Republican administrations, but Pruitt stands out both because he's been so ham-fisted in making concessions to big business and because it's become harder and harder to ignore the visible effects of climate change. As we've known for years, the slower we act on climate change the worse the eventual effects will be. Years of inaction under Donald Trump and Pruitt will mean more problems for the generations that will inherit the world.
The bad news for those who have been calling for Pruitt's ouster is that a new EPA administrator isn't likely to change the trajectory of the agency under Trump. The candidates rumored to be competing for the gig in 2016 included a conservative think tank scholar who wrote "carbon dioxide has none of the attributes of a pollutant," a former energy lobbyist, and a conservative environmental regulator who signed a letter to Trump that said "in recent years the EPA has run out of control.”
Pruitt's replacement, in other words, is likely to be cut from the same industry-friendly, right-wing ideological cloth. And while he or she might be more concerned than Pruitt is with avoiding scandals, a whole lot of Trump officials have come under fire for throwing around taxpayer money and several of them have survived. It's easy to imagine that Trump tolerates—even encourages—his subordinates' overspending as long as they are enacting his agenda. Pruitt can be accused of many things, but failing to advance Trump's pro-business policies isn't one of them. The EPA head even announced that the agency would reconsider a rule governing a specific, particularly pollution-causing type of truck, the largest producer of which held a campaign event for Trump, according to the New Yorker.
For that reason, Pruitt may end up weathering this current storm. HUD Secretary Ben Carson hasn't quit despite questions over his mixing of official duties with his son's business and his wife's purchase of a $31,000 table with public funds. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin remains in his post despite anger at his spending $800,000 on seven trips. If Pruitt sticks it out, maybe news coverage and public interest will move on and he'll be able to continue his agenda of doing whatever oil companies tell him to.
If he does leave, on the other hand, he's pretty much guaranteed to land on his feet. If anyone deserves to be a lobbyist after a government career, it's Pruitt—he's spent years working on behalf of American polluters, and it's about time they start paying him directly.
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