There were two competing news stories centered on Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt on Tuesday morning.
One of those stories was an extension of an ongoing scandal involving Pruitt’s allocation of federal money. As first reported by the Atlantic, Pruitt leveraged a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act to reappoint two longtime allies so that he could give them raises that the White House had rejected. One of those employees, Millan Hupp, was involved in Pruitt’s personal search for housing last summer, an apparent violation of ethics rules. Pruitt was moving out of a condo for which he was paying only $50 a night — a condo owned by the wife of an energy-industry lobbyist, one of whose clients later received EPA approval for a project.
This is only one part of the current ethical questions surrounding Pruitt.
Another involves his spending at the EPA, including more than $100,000 on first-class flights, apparently because he’d been accosted by another passenger once when flying coach. The Post reported Monday that the EPA had considered a $100,000-a-month private jet contract but rejected it. Pruitt also has been criticized for spending more than $43,000 on a soundproof phone booth for his office.
All of that is a remarkable amount of negative coverage for a Cabinet member to receive. President Trump accepted Tom Price’s resignation as health and human services secretary because of expensive air travel alone, but Pruitt has kept his head above water.
How? Well, that brings us to the other reason Pruitt was in the news Tuesday.
At an event in the morning, Pruitt announced that the EPA would be scaling back fuel-efficiency standards enacted under the Obama administration. What’s more, the EPA plans to challenge California’s higher standards, which, given the size of the state’s car marketplace, have the effect of driving up the standard elsewhere in the country.
The Obama administration focused on fuel-efficiency standards as part of its broad look at how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change across the United States. As the EPA’s website still notes, more than a quarter of emissions of greenhouse gas in the nation are from transportation, including gas being burned by cars. By increasing fuel efficiency, the argument went, we would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from that major source — and thereby help combat climate change.
But in March 2017, during a roundtable discussion with automakers, Trump pledged to revisit those rules that, he said, had the effect of “imposing painful new restrictions on the American automobile production lines and undermining our ability to compete with other countries and other places throughout the world, which are very, very competitive, believe me.” (The fuel economy standard for American cars is already well below that of other countries and would stay lower even under the Obama guidelines.)
The point, though, is that Pruitt is doing exactly what Trump wants.
Pruitt was one of a slew of Cabinet nominees chosen by Trump seemingly for his direct opposition to the agency that he was going to lead. As attorney general in oil-rich Oklahoma, he sued the EPA multiple times. Since assuming the role of EPA administrator, he has been effective at curtailing the agency’s regulatory efforts in several ways.
Scaling back the Clean Power Plan, which would have mandated lower greenhouse gas emissions at existing power plants.
Released talking points on climate change aimed at playing down the role of human activity.
Postponing a rule mandating that chemical plants warn the public about possible safety issues.
Rejecting a ban on a pesticide linked to nervous system damage in children.
Pruitt has emphasized a culture at the EPA focused on cutting regulations. He also has slowed enforcement actions against polluters.
This is what Pruitt was appointed to do. Trump’s administration is heavily focused on cutting regulations to the benefit of business; Pruitt has been more effective in doing so at the EPA than many of his peers in Trump’s Cabinet were. That’s seemingly born of a genuine antipathy for the anti-pollution and anti-climate-change activism of the last administration.
So it’s easy to see why Trump would be loath to replace him. Sure, whoever stepped in after Pruitt would be unlikely to suddenly embrace a hard-line stance toward polluters, given that he or she would be a Trump appointee. But Pruitt’s enthusiasm — and effectiveness, as even his opponents would note — would be hard to match.
Trump reportedly called Pruitt on Monday night to offer his support. In comments to the media on Tuesday, though, his enthusiasm was not terribly robust.
“I hope he’s going to be great,” Trump said.
To Trump’s eye, Pruitt’s work at the EPA almost certainly has been great. It’s just all that other stuff that’s problematic.
This article was corrected after Pruitt’s planned appearance at a Virginia car dealership was canceled.