July 8, 2018 - Scott Pruitt's departure as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator this week marked the final chapter of his troubled tenure as a Cabinet official dogged by ethics scandals but his impact on policy is likely to live on.
Andrew Wheeler, the deputy EPA administrator who is taking over as acting head of the agency, shares Pruitt's zeal for deregulation as does President Donald Trump.
The rollback of regulations targeting carbon emissions from energy plants and a delay in the implementation of water-quality rules are among the steps Pruitt took to dismantle Obama-era environmental policies.
Here are seven ways Pruitt's legacy will carry on:
Climate Change Policies
Of all the steps Pruitt took to roll back environmental regulation, none was more dramatic than his changes in policy regarding limits on carbon emissions that lead to global warming.
He was instrumental in convincing Trump to pull out of the Paris Accord, the international accord signed by the vast majority of countries to voluntarily reduce carbon emissions limits.
And he moved quickly to to undo the Clean Power Plan rule that stood as President Barack Obama's signature effort to reduce climate change by imposing strict limits on coal-fired energy production. As an exclamation point, Pruitt made the announcement last year to to a gathering of coal miners in eastern Kentucky.
But the removal of regulations is a lengthy process involving research and legal reviews that are used when new rules are adopted.
On Thursday, the same day Pruitt announced his resignation, The New York Times reported that the agency is working on a draft of a rule to replace the Clean Power Plant regulation that is much weaker than the Obama proposal.
Revamping Advisory Boards
Pruitt sought to reshape what he viewed as an agency run amok.
Last fall, he announced he was shaking up the roster of the nearly two dozen advisory boards that guide agency leaders on key policies so that more voices from industry, states and academic institutions located outside the Northeast would be represented.
He said members of those panels will no longer be allowed to simultaneously serve on the agency's nearly two dozen advisory boards if they simultaneously receive EPA grants.
The administrator pointed to three panels — the Board of Scientific Counselors, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and the Science Advisory Board — where 20 members collectively received $77 million in EPA grants over the past three years, according to agency figures.
Pruitt said the directive would increase the scientific integrity behind rule-making. Environmental groups called the move a gift to business allies because it would push academics out and open more slots for industry-friendly members.
Mass Exodus of EPA staff
Employee buyouts and proposals for budget cuts were carried out under Pruitt, who sued the EPA 14 times during his tenure as Oklahoma attorney general.
Hundreds of scientists, researchers and other staff have left the agency over the past 18 months taking with them institutional expertise.
In addition, administrative, civil and criminal enforcement actions continued to drop under Pruitt, a trend that began under Obama's EPA, according to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
The 2017 case referrals to the Department of Justice for prosecution are below annual levels going back to 1990 while the pace EPA is setting through the first half of FY 2018 would be the lowest in 30 years, the organization said.
"Pruitt seriously damaged the EPA by demoralizing it and thinning out a lot of highly talented, experienced public servants," said David J. Arkush, climate program managing director for Public Citizen, a non-profit public health advocacy group. "I think the agency will recover – its mission is too important and too popular with the public not to – but it could (take) years."
But Adam Brandon, president of the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, praised Pruitt for leaving "a positive, lasting impact at the agency," pointing to 22 deregulatory actions that were finalized during the last year.
No More Sue and Settle
Pruitt ended the practice of what has been derisively called "sue and settle," a strategy he said environmental groups used in coordination with the Obama administration to implement public health rules through court-ordered consent decrees. It was a way, he said, to “circumvent the regulatory process set forth by Congress."
The practice, he said, established EPA obligations without allowing states or industry to weigh in, forced the agency to cough up millions in legal fees, and tried to "foreclose meaningful public participation in rulemaking."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce pushed for the move, noting that under Obama, EPA's decision not to defend itself in dozens of lawsuits from advocacy groups led to the improper crafting of more than 100 new regulations, including the Clean Power Plan, that have cost the economy billions in burdensome red tape.
But the authors of an article in the Harvard Environmental Law Review concluded the criticism that sue and settle enables agencies to skirt a law's intent is misguided. They said opponents of the practice were "relying on emotionally charged rhetoric to score political points."
Under Wheeler, there's no reason to believe Pruitt's policy will change.
Eliminating 'Secret Science'
In April, Pruitt proposed a rule that would require new regulations be based only on studies that are fully transparent.
The move to eradicate what conservatives dub "secret science" may be the most ambitious of his strategies because of its potential scope. Scientific research can be used as legal justification behind regulations so limits on it could lead to fewer regulations.
Environmental advocates say that legislation would block efforts to reduce pollution because some of the raw data required to justify new regulations would reveal privately protected health information about individuals and therefore could not be released to the general public.
Echoing environmental groups, American Lung Association President and CEO Harold P. Wimmer called the EPA proposal "appalling and dangerous."
But the move is applauded by conservatives in Congress such as Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who said the proposed rule would "give Americans access to the science and data used to justify regulations that impact both our economy and our environment.”
Scandals Reached a Tipping Point
Pruitt also proved that even the Trump's most ardent deregulator can wear out his welcome.
Pruitt was accused of spending extravagantly on travel and security, asking aides to run personal errands and accepting favorable terms for the rental of a condo owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist. Those and the illegal installation of a $43,000 secure telephone booth, were among more than a dozen ethical controversies that had most Democrats on Capitol Hill and even a few Republicans calling for his dismissal.
Pruitt "is about as swampy as you get here in Washington, D.C.," Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst said last month when she was sparring with the EPA administrator over ethanol policy. "And if the president wants to drain the swamp, he needs to take a look at his own Cabinet."
Though reports said top White House officials wanted him gone long ago, Pruitt was able to outlast other Trump Cabinet members (Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin) whose ethical transgressions were considerably tamer.
Path for Pruitt's Successor
Environmentalists cheered when Pruitt departed Thursday but Wheeler is better positioned – and seems just as committed – to execute Trump's deregulatory agenda.
The former coal industry lobbyist spent several years as a special assistant at the EPA and more than a decade on Capitol Hill working mainly for Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe – experience that has given Wheeler a deep understanding of how the agency works as well as relationships with key members of Congress.
And Wheeler is not weighed down by the constant ethics scandals that ultimately sank Pruitt.
Some Pruitt critics say they fear Wheeler could be ultimately more effective at deregulation.
Arkush of Public Citizen said Wheeler may not have initiated some of the "crusades" Pruitt launched against science and advisory boards but he doesn't think Wheeler will stop them.
"He'll still have challenges – mainly that the science and the facts will be completely against what he's trying to do," Arkush said of the incoming administrator. "But there's no denying that competent administrators who dot their "i"s and cross their "t"s get a great deal of deference from the courts, and he appears to be someone who knows how to do that."
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