In what amounts to a massive blow for the environment and America’s efforts to fight back against climate change, Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt was confirmed at the end of last week as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Senators voted 52 to 46 – with two Democrats actually backing him, and one Republican opposed – to approve his ascension.
Curiously, if Democrats Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota actually decided to vote against Pruitt’s confirmation, it wouldn’t have been successful. As it so happens, they are both from coal-rich states, and you’d be hard pressed to find any other industry that’s keener to take apart the EPA.
The EPA is the organization that keeps America’s air, land, and water as pollutant-free as possible. Under the Obama administration, it was given more muscle to enact climate change prevention measures on a national level, something which fossil fuel conglomerates and coal/oil/gas-rich states were heavily opposed to.
Scott Pruitt has spent much of his career organizing such groups to sue the EPA, although almost always unsuccessfully. The rulings in these cases generally recognize that climate change, of course, doesn’t care for state boundaries and the environment required federal initiatives to be properly protected.
Pruitt is also a climate change denier somewhere on the scale between straight-out hoaxer to “the science isn’t settled.” He also happens to be supported by a large consortium of organizations of climate change deniers, and most of these are funded by the highly conservative Koch brothers, two of the world's wealthiest fossil fuel magnates.
In fact, the links between Pruitt and fossil fuel companies may be even stronger than previously realized. Just last week, a judge ordered him to hand over thousands of emails between himself and key figures in the energy industry, but he refused. This is one of many such orders spanning two years, none of which have been heeded.
Pruitt has been keen to take down the EPA for some time, in terms of watering down its authority to anemic levels. A new House bill, one put forward by some Tea Party Republicans, actually aims to terminate the EPA by the end of 2018, and Pruitt would not be against this.
Despite last-ditch efforts by employees of the EPA, many of whom have been ordered to not discuss their work with the press or public, the attorney general is now in charge of the organization he’s long wanted to destroy as far back as the Reagan era.
Pruitt’s main objective will be to simultaneously roll back Obama-era environmental protection measures while giving more power to each individual state to decide how they will handle such regulations.
This sounds like the power is being given “back to the people,” but as states are so biased depending on their energy industry links, this will ultimately result in a mish-mash of clean energy states next to far “dirtier” ones. Those like California and New York will push ahead with renewable energy measures, while those like North Dakota will double-down on burning coal and gas.
It’s also likely that he’ll want to permanently remove the EPA’s ability to have a say over greenhouse gas emissions. As dire as this threat is, there may be some hope yet.
The EPA’s Obama-era emission cutting targets, ambitious as they seemed at the time, are a decade-and-a-half ahead of schedule, despite not even having any legal basis. As it turns out, most of America is switching to renewable energy all by itself, thanks to the clear economic and environmental benefits of doing so.
So Pruitt’s appointment is grim, yes – but maybe, just maybe, it’s too late to turn back the tide.