Scott Pruitt – hunter of old Trump hotel mattresses, purveyor of Chick-fil-A jobs, connoisseur of soundproof booths and the head of the beleaguered Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – has resigned. Announced, of course, via a tweet by the President of the United States, the reaction of anyone who quite likes clean air and water was pretty much the same: about damn time.
Pruitt was, on the surface, anti-scientific, but it’s more complex than that. Under the guise of a deregulation drive, but motivated by the interests of the fossil fuel industry, Pruitt proved to be the most destructive, regressive chief in the entire history of the EPA.
Although his tenure is also the shortest on record, his slinking off into the night isn’t exactly pure catharsis: his replacement, Andrew Wheeler, will carry on his toxic legacy, just without the scandals.
At the same time, Pruitt – a longtime legal and philosophical archenemy of the agency – managed to damage the EPA in unprecedented ways, with the full support of the White House. It’s now a shadow of its former self; a revolving door enterprise for the petrochemical industry that’s increasingly opaque and unscientific in its operations.
Now he’s toast, the myriad of ways in which the EPA was set ablaze from within are worth recalling. Let’s take a grim trip down memory lane. Scott Pruitt: This Is Your Life.
Pruitt's Destruction of the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Panels
Anyone unlucky enough to read Pruitt’s fawning resignation letter was reminded that he thought his actions, and those of the President, were guided by God. As it happens, during the press conference for arguably his most dangerous move at the EPA, the Bible was quoted.
Making an obscure reference to the Book of Joshua and about who one should serve, Pruitt announced that scientists on the EPA payroll cannot serve on the three major advisory groups at the EPA. Deployed under a veil of conflict of interest concerns (the irony), the decision was decried by every scientific agency going, with many pointing out that scientists at the EPA are clearly the best placed to advise it.
It was quickly seen for what it really was: a way to get industry darlings into positions of power at the agency, and to push politically problematic data about greenhouse gases and pollutants aside.
“This EPA decision is motivated by politics, not the desire for quality scientific information,” Rush Holt, the chief executive officer for the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS), said at the time. A legal case spearheaded by scientists against the action described Pruitt’s directive as “stacking the deck against scientific integrity.”
This isn’t even something that can be quickly reversed or nixed. Those serving on the councils often do so across administrations, which is why this action is so damaging to the EPA’s central mission: to protect human health and the environment.
Pruitt's Push To Exit The Paris Agreement
The Paris Agreement is certainly groundbreaking, and it has every single nation on board except, of course, the United States – well, its federal government, at least. It’s also a pretty weak way to handle climate change; the targets, set voluntarily by each country, aren’t legally binding, and already it’s thought that we need to literally suck carbon dioxide out of the sky if we have a hope in hell of accomplishing its targets.
Saying that, its political, scientific, and even economic benefits cannot be ignored. That’s why, when Trump – as expected – announced that the US would withdraw in 2020, it was still quite the gut-punch. It didn’t help that Pruitt sat there during the announcement in the White House Rose Garden, grinning like the Cheshire Cat.
He’d been the strongest critic of the accords in the administration, and despite a fair few people in the federal government pleading with Trump to stick with Paris, his constant (false) portraying of the agreement as a bad deal for America seemed to drown it out.
Pruitt’s Misrepresentation of Climate Science
It’s difficult to remember how many times Pruitt made climate science seem wrong or uncertain, but every time he did, he knew what he was doing: By portraying the extent of climate change, and the degree to which we’re responsible for it, as somewhat of a mystery, he hoped to convince the public that it shouldn’t be bothered with.
At one point, he actually suggested getting a team of climate scientists to debate climate deniers live on television, with the latter members to be selected by the hardline conservative, science-bashing Heartland Institute. This plan was ultimately nixed, but that didn’t stop Pruitt appearing on TV and radio over and over again, making all kinds of bullshit claims.
It wasn’t just Pruitt himself doing all the dirty work. Talking point advisories began circling through the EPA, instructing staffers to say that there are “clear gaps” in our understanding of anthropogenic climate change. Climate change information was regularly purged from the EPA’s website. Scientists applying for funding grants found applications containing the words “climate change” were being rejected.
This baseless rhetoric was exhaustingly persistent, and was described by climatologist Prof. Kim Cobb at the time as a damaging “package of misinformation.”
Pruitt’s Censorship of Scientific Data
Back in April, Pruitt announced that only publically available science would be used by the EPA, all in the name of “transparency”. Sounds good on paper, but in reality, this meant that decades of research would be ignored.
The key issue is that plenty of research’s raw data contains confidential medical information on patients, which understandably should be kept private. As much of it will be now and into the future, this means that key research – say, respiratory afflictions caused by pollution – will be considered void by the EPA.
Pruitt’s Handshakes with the Coal Industry
Climatologist Prof. Michael Mann told IFLScience that, when it comes to the EPA’s climate change denial, “there is no consistency at all to their various arguments other than that we should continue to burn fossil fuels.”
This aligned perfectly with comments by several former members of the EPA, whose interviews revealed that the tendrils of the flailing coal industry had infiltrated deeper into the agency than you might think.
From white papers designed to nix environmental regulations to placing coal lobbyists in powerful positions, former staffers told IFLScience last year that the job of the EPA now appears to be to protect the fossil fuel industry.
Pruitt’s Deregulation of Key Pollution Rules
Under Pruitt’s orders, the axe fell on several key environmental protection initiatives.
The Clean Water Rule – of the larger Clean Water Act – which aimed to ensure that waterways across the US are clean and drinkable for 100 million Americans – was canceled last summer, based on unfounded arguments about federal overreach and economic damage.
In April of this year, Pruitt also said that he wanted to change the Obama-era standards for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions made by vehicles. Still being fought by the influential Californian state, this aimed at appeasing car manufacturers, who complained that they couldn’t meet the current aggressive fuel-efficiency standards.
Pruitt’s actions were aimed to allow for lower fuel-efficiencies that pumped out more GHGs. It might have made cars slightly cheaper to buy too, all at the expense of climate change and the health of Americans.
One Obama-era directive has remained untouched, though: efforts by the EPA and the Interior Department to kill the methane rule, one that would make it easier for fracking industries to mine the depths, was blocked by a judge.
Pruitt’s Repeal of the Clean Power Plan
Obama’s signature GHG-curbing scheme, the Clean Power Plan (CPP), was scrapped by Pruitt back in October. It aimed to reduce 2005 power plant emissions by 32 percent by 2030, an ambitious task at the time. Sadly, it never became legally binding after getting stuck in the courts, but Pruitt decided to kill it off once and for all regardless.
Turns out that at the current rate, the GHG-cutting targets will not just be met, but exceeded before 2030, thanks to the rise in renewables and the global move toward a low-carbon economy. Pruitt’s execution of the CPP, then, was nothing more than posturing.
Pruitt’s Creation of a Toxic Legacy
Ultimately, it was the mounting number of increasingly ludicrous scandals – investigated and reported on daily by some truly incredible journalists – that forced Pruitt’s hand. Some have pointed out, quite rightly, that the real scandal is that someone so beholden to industry interests (for personal gain) should have ever been allowed near the EPA in the first place.
Sadly, although many of his directives remain incomplete, the foundations are set. Wheeler is likely to try to finish the job.
“The Trump Administration lost one of its most corrupt and steadfast weapons against science,” Shaughnessy Naughton, the founder of pro-science political action group 314 Action, told IFLScience. Referencing Wheeler’s ascension, however, she added that “unfortunately, this is no time to celebrate.”
“Pruitt’s legacy will be dirtier air and water, more toxic contaminants and decreased public health and safety,” Dr Andrew Rosenberg, Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at Union of Concerned Scientists, told IFLScience. “He also left a legacy of sidelining science in favor of political influence.”
“To undo the damage will take a decade at least,” he said.