Embattled EPA chief Scott Pruitt is out

Author: Josh Siegel, The Washington Examiner - July 5, 2018 - Updated: July 5, 2018

PruittEnvironmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt appears before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies on budget on Capitol Hill in May. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Scott Pruitt stepped down as head of the Environmental Protection Agency Thursday after a series of controversies that overshadowed his year of leading President Trump’s anti-regulation, pro-growth agenda.

“I have accepted the resignation of Scott Pruitt as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency,” Trump tweeted Thursday. “Within the Agency Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this. The Senate confirmed Deputy at EPA, Andrew Wheeler, will on Monday assume duties as the acting Administrator of the EPA. I have no doubt that Andy will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda. We have made tremendous progress and the future of the EPA is very bright!”

Pruitt on Thursday blamed the “unrelenting attacks” from his critics as the reason he decided to step down from his post, in a letter that thanked President Trump for the chance to serve in the post, but didn’t apologize for his various ethics scandals.

“The unrelenting attacks on me personally, [and] my family are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us,” Pruitt said in his resignation letter to Trump.

Pruitt’s exit came a month after he addressed a friendly crowd in Denver at the Western Conservative Summit, touting Trump’s accomplishments in reversing environmental regulations imposed by the previous Obama administration.

We are living in transformational times, Pruitt told the audience at his June 8 speech: “God places responsibility on us to advance liberty and freedom” just as it was at the founding of the country, he said.

Pruitt had been under the microscope for months after a number of allegations. He was the subject of at least a dozen federal investigations, over issues including his $50-per-night condo rental deal with the wife of an energy lobbyist who had business before the EPA, spending more than $3 million on his 24-hour security detail, frequent first-class travel, reports he retaliated against employees who questioned his judgment, sending his staff on personal errands, and using them to try to find a job for his wife.

At least some of those actions were illegal.

The Government Accountability Office rule that the EPA broke federal law by spending $43,000 on a secure phone booth for Pruitt’s office without notifying Congress.

His ties to lobbyists were extensive. Lobbyists, or private individuals from outside government, helped plan Pruitt’s controversial $100,000 trip to Morocco, where he promoted natural gas, and were involved with preparing for canceled visits to Australia and Israel. Involving outsiders in travel plans proved to be problematic. Federal law prohibits public officials from using their office to enrich themselves or any private individual, or to offer endorsements.

Pruitt’s problems eventually shook up his staff, bringing broader turmoil to the agency. Four top-level aides to Pruitt resigned during one week spanning late April to early May, including his top two communications officials, Liz Bowman and John Konkus. Two more quit on the same day in June.

Two other employees quit under scrutiny: Albert “Kell” Kelly, a controversial figure who was barred from the banking industry and led the agency’s Superfund program that helps clean up hazardous sites, and Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, the head of Pruitt’s security detail and a major figure and witness in federal probes of Pruitt’s spending and ethics.

Pruitt, in testimony before two House committees in April, downplayed his role in the various problems at the agency, mostly blaming career and political staff who work under him. Pruitt’s deflection of responsibility damaged morale among EPA staff, sources said, and inhibited the agency from pursuing Trump’s policy agenda.

Trump had been reluctant to push Pruitt out, repeatedly praising him for advancing the president’s “energy dominance agenda” and delivering for “coal and energy country.”

In his letter to Trump, Pruitt highlighted his regret at leaving before he could finish enacting a “historical” deregulatory agenda at EPA.

“Mr. President it has been an honor to serve you,” Pruitt said. “Your confidence in me has blessed me personally and enabled to me to advance your agenda beyond what anyone anticipated at the beginning of your administration. Your courage, steadfastness and resolute commitment to get results for the American people, both with regard to improved environmental outcomes as well as historical regulatory reform, is in fact occurring at an unprecedented pace and I thank you for the opportunity to serve you and American people in helping achieve those ends.”

For Trump, the EPA chief was a central figure in implementing the president’s deregulation agenda, making some of Trump’s earliest executive actions. Pruitt is central to rolling back former President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which included national climate change regulations and the Paris climate change accord.

Pruitt also was trying to stop or prevent new regulations from taking effect that he argued would drive up costs for states, oil refiners, power plant operators, and oil and natural gas frackers. Pruitt in April announced that he would reject Obama-era regulations that set strict fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light-truck and went further than many automakers had asked for in weakening them.

Pruitt came into office promising to transform the agency’s focus away from climate change, and return it “back to the basics” of cleaning up air, water and land.

He has done so by routinely questioning manmade climate change, booting scientists from key advisory boards, and promoting the coal and natural gas industries, all to the chagrin of critics who say he works too closely with the fossil fuel industry that the EPA is supposed to regulate.

Nevertheless, Pruitt has aimed to clean up hazardous Superfund sites faster than his predecessors, while declaring a “war on lead” in drinking water to overcome lingering problems after the 2014 Flint, Mich., water crisis.

But critics say Pruitt has little to show for those efforts and is more concerned about the publicity created from promising tough action. And by avoiding addressing what many see as today’s major environmental challenge — climate change — critics say he is moving the agency backward.

Pruitt has said that the EPA has taken 22 actions to delay or weakened prior agency regulations, most from the Obama administration. He says the moves have saved taxpayers more than $1 billion.

More prominently, he encouraged Trump to reject the Paris Agreement and has begun repealing and replacing the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s core policy to force reductions in carbon emissions from power plants.

Pruitt’s EPA, however, has suffered setbacks in the courts, and many of his rollbacks may go unrealized.

Liberal attorneys general have sued the Trump administration for actions including delaying the Waters of the United States rule, eliminating a rule to limit methane emissions, missing a deadline to implement standards for controlling smog-forming pollution, and suspending a requirement that states track on-road greenhouse gas emissions.

Some of the challenges have already been successful.

In July, a federal appeals court blocked the Trump administration from eliminating an EPA rule limiting methane emissions from oil and natural gas wells.

The effort by liberal attorneys general resembles a similar pushback by leading Republican state lawyers who coalesced to challenge the Obama administration’s use of executive action on issues including energy and environment, immigration, and healthcare.

Indeed, Pruitt, as Oklahoma’s attorney general, was a leader in that campaign, suing the EPA more than a dozen times, challenging the agency’s authority to regulate toxic mercury pollution, smog, carbon emissions from power plants, and wetland and waterways.

The Democratic attorneys general, led by the top attorneys in California and New York, say the Trump administration has not followed proper legal procedures and laws to unwind regulations, and has failed to justify its actions with science-based facts.

The attorneys general, as plaintiffs in lawsuits, frequently accuse the Trump administration of flouting the Administrative Procedures Act, by short-circuiting the public comment process to delay implementation of Obama-era rules.

Marianne Goodland of Colorado Politics contributed.

Josh Siegel, The Washington Examiner