The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Scott Pruitt turned the EPA into one of Trump’s most powerful tools

Scott Pruitt, seen in his office at the Environmental Protection Agency, has spent his first year as administrator shrinking the EPA’s reach, altering its focus and erasing its work to fight climate change. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Since 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency has been embroiled in an enforcement battle with a Michigan-based company accused of modifying the state's largest coal-fired power plant without getting federal permits for a projected rise in pollution.

On Dec. 7, as the Supreme Court was considering whether to hear the case, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt issued a memo that single-handedly reversed the agency's position. No longer would the EPA be "second-guessing" DTE Energy's emission projections. Rather, it would accept the firm's "intent" to manage its pollution without requiring an enforceable agreement — part of President Trump's broader push to reduce the "burden" on companies, he wrote.

The little-noticed episode offers a glimpse into how Pruitt has spent his first year running the EPA. In legal maneuvers and executive actions, in public speeches and closed-door meetings with industry groups, he has moved to shrink the agency's reach, alter its focus, and pause or reverse numerous environmental rules. The effect has been to steer the EPA in the direction sought by those being regulated.

Along the way, Pruitt has begun to dismantle former president Barack Obama's environmental legacy, halting the agency's efforts to combat climate change and to shift the nation away from its reliance on fossil fuels.

Such aggressiveness on issues from coal waste to vehicle emissions has made Pruitt one of Trump's most high-profile and consequential Cabinet members. It also has made him one of the most controversial.

Critics describe his short tenure as an assault on the agency's mission, its science and its employees.

"We've spent 40 years putting together an apparatus to protect public health and the environment from a lot of different pollutants," said William Ruckelshaus, the EPA's first administrator, who led the agency under Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan. "He's pulling that whole apparatus down."

Yet, allies praise Pruitt for returning more power to individual states while scaling back what they see as the previous administration's regulatory excesses.

"It is a stark change, the way they solicit input from the industry that they're seeking to regulate," said Karen Harbert, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Global Energy Institute, who welcomes the shift.

In an interview, Pruitt said a priority during his first 10 months in office has been listening to "stakeholders that actually live under the regulations that we adopt. . . . I don't understand how that's not what I should be doing."

Already, some people are speculating about what his future holds.

As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt was widely viewed as a potential gubernatorial candidate there. Since he joined the Trump administration, rumors have swirled about whether he might pursue a Senate seat. He regularly heads to the White House mess for lunch, which provides more opportunities to run into key presidential aides. Privately, he has mused about whether he could occupy other Cabinet spots, according to individuals who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations.

The man who spent years railing against the long reach of the federal government now seems determined to make his mark in Washington.

Pruitt, 49, stands on the opposite end of the political spectrum from his immediate predecessor, Gina McCarthy, but the two share something in common: a willingness to use the agency's broad executive authority to act unilaterally.

"Vested in the administrator is this incredible power and this incredible regulatory reach," said Ken Cook, president of the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group. "When there's someone on the inside willing to unlock the door and let these special interests in, they can do tremendous damage to the environmental rule of law."

From the moment Pruitt arrived at the agency in February, he began using his levers of power to halt existing regulations and shift the bureaucracy.

"The administrator has been effective and very decisive on a number of issues [where] he can do things with the stroke of a pen," said Jeffrey Holmstead, a former top EPA official under George W. Bush and now a partner at the law and lobbying firm Bracewell. "He came in with a list of targets he needed to deal with, and he's been very decisive on saying, 'Here's what we need to do.' "

Within days of taking office, Pruitt canceled the EPA's request that nearly 20,000 oil and gas companies gauge their emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The following month, he withdrew a proposed ban on a commonly used pesticide, chlorpyrifos, that the EPA's own scientists had argued posed risks to human health.

Last month, the EPA issued a guidance document outlining how it would implement a bipartisan 2016 law that for the first time requires the agency to rule on a new chemical's potential risks before allowing it on the market. Instead of including "reasonably foreseeable uses," the document states, the agency will now consider only the "intended" conditions of use submitted by the manufacturer — a significant and contentious change.

Three of the bill's Democratic authors say the interpretation defies the law's intent. But it is precisely the approach pushed by the American Chemistry Council.

Despite his scant experience running environmental programs, Pruitt sued the Obama EPA 14 times as Oklahoma attorney general and challenged the agency's authority to regulate toxic mercury pollution, smog, carbon emissions from power plants and the quality of wetlands and other waters.

"All that suing he did for years steeped him in the knowledge of the agency and how it works," Ruckelshaus noted.

That doesn't mean Pruitt has prevailed on all fronts this year. In July, a federal appeals court vacated the agency's attempt to delay a rule limiting methane and other pollutants from oil and gas operations. The next month, after Democratic attorneys general and public health groups went to court, the EPA reversed its decision to delay implementing an Obama-era rule requiring more stringent air quality standards.

And on Wednesday, a separate federal appeals court in California ordered the agency to quickly issue new standards to protect children from lead in paint — rejecting the Trump administration's position that a new rule on acceptable levels of exposure could take six years.

David Rivkin, a partner at Baker Hostetler and one of the administrator's informal advisers, said Pruitt remains acutely aware of the gantlet he faces. "I cannot think of any administrator who paid so much attention to creating rules that are legally defensible," Rivkin said.

Pruitt says he has set about "revitalizing" the agency and focusing on areas, such as the Superfund cleanup program, that were "dormant" in past administrations. He seems confident that he will succeed in reshaping the EPA as he and Trump envision, despite environmental advocates vowing to battle him at every turn.

"I'm pretty sanguine about our ability to defend our actions here at the agency, so long as we do things timely and within the text of the statute," he said. "The problem the agency had historically is when [officials] have not done things in the time frame they were supposed to do something. That's invited lawsuits that then allow others to set the priorities."

From his wood-paneled office complex on the third floor of the EPA's headquarters, Pruitt operates in a cocoon of sorts.

He is accompanied 24/7 by a security detail — a setup that has tripled past staffing requirements. He has installed biometric locks on his office doors, as well as a $25,000 soundproof booth from which he can make secure calls to the White House. And he has shied away from using email at the EPA, which would be subject to open records laws, preferring instead to communicate by phone or in face-to-face meetings.

While he has met with scores of industry executives, trade groups, farmers and ranchers, spoken to conservative political organizations and shuttled back and forth to the White House, Pruitt's calendars show limited contact with the EPA's own career staff. He has visited 30 states, by his count, but has yet to visit any of EPA's 10 regional offices.

The EPA routinely refuses to release details about where Pruitt will be any given day, citing security concerns. So as he travels the country and sometimes the world, his appearances often come as a surprise to the media and the public.

Despite Pruitt's claims that his door is open, advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club and Environmental Working Group have not bothered to request meetings. But when Earthjustice asked to attend a May session with state officials about how EPA planned to give them more authority over storing toxic coal ash, the agency refused. It also denied access to a 247-page guidance document it was drafting.

Other organizations have come up against similar walls. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from a public watchdog group, government lawyers said Pruitt's Superfund Task Force took no minutes of its meetings. On one of the administrator's top priorities, the task force apparently produced just one document — a list of final recommendations.

The paradigm shift at EPA has been dominated so far by a handful of political aides and trusted advisers, led by agency chief of staff Ryan Jackson, who didn't require confirmation. The Senate only recently confirmed several of the agency's top deputies.

"It doesn't take a big staff to delay things and provide almost no reasoning," said Georgetown University law professor Lisa ­Heinzerling, who served as the EPA's associate administrator for the Office of Policy between July 2009 and December 2010. But she cautioned that Pruitt eventually will have to provide more detailed legal justifications for his own regulatory proposals. "That's where it's going to get trickier."

Legal fights aside, Pruitt is making a more fundamental push to alter the agency's composition and mind-set. Too often in recent years, he said, the agency has come at issues in terms of "prohibition" — "It was to put up fences. It was to keep fossil fuels in the ground, as an example." By contrast, he sees his role as allowing the country to responsibly tap its natural resources.

"He understands the culture of the agency as part of the problem," said former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, who joined Pruitt in suing the Obama administration. Some EPA staff "believe they have been anointed by God" to pursue a specific agenda, he said.

To that end, Pruitt has moved aggressively to shrink the agency. More than 700 people have left, several hundred through buyouts this summer. With them have gone decades of scientific expertise. The EPA now has about 14,400 staff members — fewer than at any time since the final year of the Reagan administration. The exodus has dampened morale, numerous current and former career staffers say.

At the same time, Pruitt has overhauled the EPA's scientific advisory boards, getting rid of numerous academic researchers in favor of experts from regulated industries and conservative states.

The EPA's leader argues that he is trying to make it more efficient, to create "almost a franchise model" where regional offices around the country would act with more uniformity. He recruited a former top Arizona environmental official to create metrics for the agency's performance.

What Pruitt describes as efficiency, his critics see as undermining the EPA's ability to fulfill its mission. But friends and foes alike agree that he has been straightforward about his intentions.

Environmental group Trout Unlimited's president, Chris Wood, met with the administrator early on. The two spoke cordially about cleaning up abandoned mines, but the reception "was a lot chillier" when Wood suggested maintaining Obama-era policies to protect seasonal streams and block a proposed gold mine near Alaska's Bristol Bay.

"It was an incredibly honest meeting," Wood recalled. "He didn't pretend he was going to be Theodore Roosevelt."

Both at home and abroad, Pruitt is proving to be anything but a typical EPA head.

While he successfully lobbied Trump to exit the 2015 Paris climate accord, leaving the United States as the only nation in the world to reject it, Pruitt has shown an interest in raising his profile beyond U.S. borders.

In June, he took seven political aides to Rome before attending a summit of G-7 environment ministers in Bologna, Italy. Their first stop featured not just a meet-and-greet with business executives but two days of papal visits, including a private tour of the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica.

This month, he and an entourage of aides traveled to Morocco at a price tag of roughly $40,000. Pruitt met with the country's foreign minister, talked about solid waste and toured a solar energy installation. But he also spent time touting the advantages of U.S. natural gas exports.

It was an extraordinary occurrence: the leader of the EPA, in a foreign land, serving as one of the most outspoken salesmen for the nation's fossil fuel industry.

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