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What EPA’s Scott Pruitt means for environmental policy and regulation

February 17, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
The Senate confirmed Scott Pruitt as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, despite Democratic attempts to delay voting to review his emails with energy executives. As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt repeatedly sued the EPA. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Myron Ebell of Competitive Enterprise Institute and Jeremy Symons from the Environmental Defense Fund about what to expect.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now that Scott Pruitt is in charge of the EPA, we take a look at what to expect from the agency under his leadership with Myron Ebell, director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian advocacy group. He oversaw President Trump’s EPA transition team and has been a vocal opponent of many of the agency’s policies. And Jeremy Symons of the Environmental Defense Fund, a group strongly opposed to Pruitt’s confirmation.

All right, Myron, let me start with you.

You’re someone that thinks that climate science in some ways is alarmist. And we’re not here to debate that tonight. We have you on because you likely have insight into why Scott Pruitt is head of the EPA today.

So, my first question to you is, is someone who shared your views on climate science, was that one of the preconditions and prerequisites to get this job and make you interested in getting that person the head of the EPA?

MYRON EBELL, Competitive Enterprise Institute: I wasn’t involved in the personnel decisions of the Trump transition. And I’m not a part of the Trump administration.

I think that what President Trump was looking for when he nominated Scott Pruitt was someone who would be a really able advocate and implementer of the president’s agenda for the EPA, and I think Scott Pruitt is a great choice.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This is the first time in the EDF history that you have gone out and opposed the nomination. Why?

JEREMY SYMONS, Environmental Defense Fund: Well, it’s because Scott Pruitt is so extreme.

And this fight isn’t over, because when you look at his record of suing the EPA that he’s now going to lead 14 times to undermine clean air and clean water protections, that doesn’t bode well for what he is going to try to do when he gets in.

Myron got his man, right? At the end of the day, this is about protecting public health. It’s the Environmental Protection Agency. And we have someone at the head now who wants to take the agency backward, instead of forward. And that’s not good for children’s health. It’s not good for protecting the elderly or anyone who is vulnerable to air pollutions, to toxic chemicals or to water pollution like lead.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Myron, you said the president’s positions, and this is what was most important.

The president on the campaign trail, even on a debate stage said that he would like to cut the EPA down significantly. Why does Scott Pruitt help the president advance that agenda?

MYRON EBELL: Scott Pruitt has been a very strong advocate for devolving more of the work of the EPA to the states.

And, in fact, the EPA already has the states doing a lot of its work, but it still has a very large bureaucracy nonetheless. I think Scott Pruitt understands that the EPA can be a lot smaller than it is and we will still have the same levels of environmental protection for clean air and clean water, because the states are already doing the work.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The EPA has shrunk even under President Obama’s term. Can it be even smaller?

JEREMY SYMONS: Look, we have worked with the Environmental Protection Agency across Republican and Democratic presidents.

And it’s not an issue of — where we go from here has to be maintaining EPA’s capability and capacity to get the job done. Scott Pruitt, when he took over as attorney general in Oklahoma, he got rid of the environmental enforcement division.

If he does that for the EPA, that means trouble anywhere in this country from Florida to Ohio. We have to make sure that we remain vigilant and that we hold the senators that voted for him by the narrowest of margins and Scott Pruitt accountable for what he does.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jeremy Symons, what are the most immediate things that you’re concerned about? What can Scott Pruitt do once he is in the job? He is one individual, it’s a large agency, the rules take time to change.

JEREMY SYMONS: Well, Myron and the transitions recommended that they cut the EPA by half.

We’re talking gutting core capacities like enforcement, like science, the health studies that need to happen to make sure that pollution is controlled. We’re worried about enforcement, like what he did in Oklahoma. We’re worried about interfering with science.

But if you look just at the lawsuits that Scott Pruitt filed to try to roll back things like mercury standards, arguing that mercury isn’t a threat to the unborn — because it is, and science says it is, and quite clearly across many studies.

If you add all those lawsuits up, if you took away those rules he was attacking, we would see 850,000 more asthma attacks every year. That is unacceptable. So we’re going to be keeping score in terms of, are we moving forward or moving back?

The Pruitt that we saw in front of the Senate said he cared about EPA’s mission and would move us forward, but his record says otherwise. We’re waiting to see which Pruitt shows up.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Myron, one of the concerns has been Mr. Pruitt’s record. The Competitive Enterprise Institute is in some ways funded by the fossil fuel industry, but Scott Pruitt was a friend to the fossil fuel industry, to put it mildly, in Oklahoma.

There is a famous incident of him basically copy-pasting an e-mail or a concern from the energy — directly to the EPA. What is he likely to do? Because at the hearings, he said that he understands that it is an incredibly important job, especially when it comes to the role in regulating CO2.

MYRON EBELL: Jeremy has mentioned these 14 lawsuits.

I’m proud that my organization, CEI, is a co-plaintiff with Attorney General Scott Pruitt in several of these lawsuits. These are meant to shrink EPA’s overreach, its illegal regulatory overreach.

I think, when you look at Oklahoma, Oklahoma is a big oil and gas producer. They’re proud of it. They produce the energy that we use. Of course Scott Pruitt supports that industry. It’s Oklahoma’s major industry, and it helps the entire nation.

So I think, if you look back at what President Trump said in the campaign, he said, I want to get rid of the regulatory rampage that is killing investment and jobs in our resource and manufacturing industries, and I want to make America the world’s energy superpower.

So I think Scott Pruitt will have a vital role in shrinking that regulatory rampage.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Does his thinking change when it’s just not Oklahoma and a specific industry that he’s protecting as state’s attorney general, but now the entire country that has lots of different sources of energy, but also a much larger constituency?

MYRON EBELL: Yes, of course.

But the Trump campaign wasn’t just about Oklahoma or the oil and gas industry. It was about rebuilding our resource and manufacturing industries across the heartland of America. And that is going to require putting EPA regulations back in their place, so that they’re concerned with air and water pollution, and not destroying jobs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Myron Ebell from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Jeremy Symons from the Environmental Defense Fund, thank you both.

MYRON EBELL: Thank you.