Any expectation that Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, would be able to cruise through an appearance on “Fox News Sunday” over the weekend was dashed within about 10 seconds of the interview.
“Good morning, Chris, how are you?” Pruitt asked host Chris Wallace.
That would be the softest question raised in the entire segment.
“Good,” Wallace replied quickly. And then, in the same breath, Wallace began grilling Pruitt about an executive order President Trump signed last week to dismantle President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan, which had required states to cut down on overall emissions and sought to limit carbon emissions from power plants.
Wallace noted that the EPA, under Obama's administration, had set a number of health milestones attainable by 2030 — if the Clean Power Plan were implemented. Those included 90,000 fewer asthma attacks, 300,000 fewer missed work and school days, and 3,600 fewer premature deaths per year.
“Without the Clear Power Plan, how are you going to prevent those terrible things?” Wallace asked Pruitt.
Pruitt argued that Trump was “keeping a promise to the American people to roll back regulatory overreach.” He also noted that the Clean Power Plan was subject to a stay by the Supreme Court; he did not mention that he, as former Oklahoma attorney general, was one of several Republicans who had originally filed the lawsuit against Obama's regulations.
“The president's keeping his promise to deal with that overreach, Chris,” Pruitt said. “It doesn't mean that clean air and clear water is not going to be the focus in the future. We're just going to do it right within the consistency of the framework that Congress has passed.”
Wallace was not having it.
“But sir, you're giving me a regulatory answer, a political answer,” Wallace said. “You're not giving a health answer.”
The “Fox News Sunday” host repeated the statistics he had cited earlier, adding that half of all Americans live in counties with unhealthy air, according to the American Lung Association.
“You're talking about regulatory overreach,” Wallace pressed. “But the question is, there are 166 million people living in unclean air, and you're going to remove some of the pollution restrictions, which would make the air even worse.”
Pruitt did not address that question directly, instead asserting that the country's air quality was not as bad as it had been in the past, and that the United States was now “actually pre-1994 levels with respect to our CO2 footprint.”
The back and forth continued. Pruitt's performance on the Sunday show earned the rare distinction of being panned by both climate change advocates and skeptics alike.
“New EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt embarrassed himself repeatedly on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, who kept Pruitt on the hot seat for 14 minutes as he pressed to get past Pruitt’s paper-thin talking points,” Jeremy Symons of the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund wrote for the Huffington Post.
Symons went on to fact-check Pruitt's statistics, noting that while the CO2 reductions he cited were accurate, they mostly occurred during the Obama administration as a result of the former president's clean-energy plans.
“It's one thing to dodge the question, but it's especially weak to hide behind the success of Obama's initiative to justify erasing it all,” Symons wrote. “Pruitt’s attempting a complicated trick here — not only trying to sell a bottle of snake oil, but breaking the bottle during the pitch.”
Pruitt received an equally dismal review on Breitbart, which called Trump's new EPA chief out for having “sweated, stuttered, and floundered” through what ultimately was “an entirely needless concession to the enemy.”
“I just watched Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, get eaten alive by Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace,” columnist James Delingpole penned on the right-wing site. “Not only was it an ugly and painful sight but it was also a very dispiriting one.”
Delingpole's argument, however, was that Pruitt did a disservice by not being more assured in defending climate-change skeptics.
“Not only should he have known the most effective answers to give; but he should have been so confident in the rightness and truth of his cause that he should have been able to seize the moment and make the points that really need to be made about President Trump’s environmental policy,” Delingpole wrote. He added that the policy “is being enacted for the good of science, for the good of the economy and the core mission of Making America Great Again.”
At one point, Wallace replayed a March 9 clip of an interview Pruitt gave on CNBC, in which Pruitt denied carbon dioxide was a primary contributor to global warming.
Wallace then pulled up on the Fox News screen a number of reports that contradicted Pruitt, including one from the United Nations panel on climate change that said it is 95 percent likely that more than half the temperature increase since the mid-20th century is due to human activities. Another from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said there is more carbon dioxide now than in the last 400,000 years, and that 2015 and 2016 are the two hottest years in record.
“Mr. Pruitt, are we supposed to believe that that's all a coincidence?” Wallace asked.
Pruitt acknowledged that “there's a warming trend, that climate is changing and human activity contributes to that change in some measure,” before pivoting to another regulatory response.
“But sir, you're kind of sugarcoating what you said,” Wallace said. “The question I have is: What if you're wrong? What if in fact the earth is warming? Simple question. What if you're wrong?”
Pruitt has been a controversial choice to head the EPA since he was nominated by Trump last December. The two share a view that Obama's restrictions on the fossil-fuel industry were an unnecessary burden on business growth.
Hundreds of former and current EPA employees protested Pruitt's nomination, urging the Senate to reject his confirmation in February.
“Our perspective is not partisan,” the group wrote in a letter signed by 447 people. “However, every EPA administrator has a fundamental obligation to act in the public’s interest based on current law and the best available science. Mr. Pruitt’s record raises serious questions about whose interests he has served to date and whether he agrees with the long-standing tenets of U.S. environmental law.”