Thursday could be a make-or-break moment for embattled EPA chief Scott Pruitt, who is appearing before lawmakers on Capitol Hill under a cloud of ethics scandals and investigations.
But the spotlight on Pruitt’s ethics issues of late and whether or not he’ll be forced to step down or get fired by President Donald Trump has overshadowed the already sizeable impact he’s had on U.S. energy and environmental policy in roughly 16 months on the job.
Pruitt backed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, continuing the debate about what role the U.S. should play in the international effort to slow global warming, and has rolled back or targeted a number of energy and environmental regulations.
Pruitt has also successfully pushed for a smaller EPA budget — a victory for conservative critics who argued throughout Barack Obama’s presidency that the agency was bloated and needed to be significantly downsized.
“We’re very supportive of the focus on streamlining and making regulations work in a more balanced fashion,” said Betsy Monseu, the CEO of the American Coal Council.
Critics contend that Pruitt’s deregulatory actions have undone meaningful reforms that sought to protect the environment and establish a global push towards renewable energy.
“He went in to undermine the EPA,” said Melina Pierce, legislative director of the Sierra Club. “The intimidation and retaliation, the reassignments, the desire to cut staffing, that has all had an immediate and potentially lasting impact on the talent and expertise of the agency.”
Pruitt has faced more calls to resign as scrutiny has grown over his possible ethics violations, and will likely defend his actions during agrilling from House lawmakers Thursday. Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks, it’s clear Pruitt has already left his mark on an agency he sued more than a dozen times as Oklahoma’s attorney general. Here’s a look at his track record on the Paris accord, Clean Power Plan, and other energy and environmental issues.
Paris climate accord
Pruitt played a key role in Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Alongside former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, Pruitt ensured the president heard from lawmakers who believed the deal negatively affects the U.S. economy and stifles the production of fossil fuel energy. Both Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to persuade Trump to stay in the agreement, even bringing former vice president Al Gore to Trump Tower in Manhattan, but in the end, Pruitt and Bannon’s arguments were more convincing.
Signed by 195 members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement was a major international step towards reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change. Under the accord, each member must report its Nationally Determined Contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions every five years. The current U.S. goal is to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent relative to 2005 levels by 2025.
The Paris deal set an overall goal of limiting the average global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius. To help that happen, developed countries are required to contribute $100 billion a year to help developing countries adapt to climate change and transition to greener sources of energy.
The earliest effective date the U.S. could withdraw from the agreement is November 2020.
Pruitt, a noted climate change skeptic, has said he does not believe carbon dioxide pollution from burning fossil fuels is a major cause of climate change.
Clean Power Plan
Pruitt has opposed the Clean Power Plan — a centerpiece of Obama’s climate change legacy — since before he took over as EPA chief. Four of the 14 legal challenges Pruitt filed against the EPA as Oklahoma attorney general dealt with the Clean Power Plan.
Developed in 2015 under the decades old Clean Air Act, the plan set state-specific regulations to limit the amount of carbon pollution that new or existing power plants can produce. It also encouraged states to move to greener sources of energy. Coal- and natural-gas-fired power plants are responsible for roughly a third of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. The Clean Power Plan is expected to cut power sector emissions by 32 percent relative to 2005 levels by 2030.
Fossil fuel producers, industry groups and attorneys general from conservative states have argued for years that the plan was an example of federal overreach by the Obama-era EPA.
Under Obama, the EPA was “more costly and less efficient,” said Monseu of the American Coal Council. “We support the regulatory reforms that this administration is taking all around,” she added.
Pruitt signed a formal proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan last October, following an executive order from Trump requesting an EPA review. Pruitt has stated that the plan places unnecessary regulations on the U.S. energy sector and slows domestic energy development. The repeal of certain regulations under the plan, such as carbon pollution guidelines for existing stationary sources, is currently going through an open public comment period.
Fuel emissions standards
More recently, Pruitt announced that the EPA would review fuel emissions standards for cars and light duty trucks that are slated to take effect between 2022 and 2025. The new standards, which were put in place under Obama, passenger cars would be required to get an average of 54.5 miles-per-gallon by 2025.
Pruitt, who made the announcement at an event with auto industry executives, has said the Obama-era standards are too high and unrealistic, and were made with “politically charged expediency.”
“He basically has said he’s going to set aside the increase and he’s going to reanalyze it hoping to get a different answer,” said Andrew Rosenberg, the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“He didn’t site any new evidence, what he cited was comments from automobile makers saying they didn’t really like the standards,” Rosenberg said.
Even though the EPA sets federal fuel emission standards, state and local governments can apply for waivers for stricter regulations. New York, Massachusetts, Oregon and Maryland, for example, have adopted stricter standards set by California, which is often out in front of the federal government on energy and environmental regulations.
Automakers have pushed Pruitt to draft new emissions standards. But in order to do so the EPA would have to go through a formal and time-consuming rulemaking process, potentially opening the agency to lawsuits from environmental groups and states opposed to the new standards.
“You can’t just erase the rules from the book,” Pierce said. “There’s a process you have to go through.”
Pruitt has also pushed for additional deregulations that haven’t made as many headlines.
Shrinking EPA’s footprint: Since Pruitt took over, the EPA has pushed through 22 regulatory rollbacks so far, according to a tracker run by Harvard’s Environmental and Energy Law program. Under Pruitt’s watch, the EPA received a $2.6 billion, or 30 percent, cut to its 2017 enacted budget, bringing it to $5.65 billion for the 2018 fiscal year, the lowest EPA budget since 1990.
Methane: Last June, Pruitt ordered a delay of a new regulation on methane leaks for two years. However, a month later, judges vacated the delay and found Pruitt’s order in violation of the Clean Air Act.
Pesticides: Pruitt last year denied a petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pesticide Action Network North America calling for a ban of the pesticide chlorpyrifos. The decision came despite a finding by EPA scientists that there is no safe level of exposure to the substance.
Clean Water Rule: In January, Pruitt suspended the Clean Water Rule for two years while he considers a formal repeal. The Obama-era rule limits potential runoff pollution of fertilizers and pesticides.
National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Ozone: Last June, Pruitt tried delaying the designation of areas that met the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone. In response, 16 state attorneys general sued Pruitt, leading him to reverse the decision. Then, after months of inactivity, a U.S. District Judge ordered Pruitt to announce the designation.
On Thursday, Pruitt’s policies will likely receive far less attention than the ethics allegations that have mounted against him since taking charge of the EPA.
The White House has largely stood up for Pruitt, but that could change based on his performance before Congress on Thursday. Here’s a rundown of some of the potential ethics violations Pruitt is being scrutinized for:
Flights: Pruitt reportedly spent more than $105,000 on first-class flights during his first year as EPA chief, and got approval ford charter flights after he took them.
Sound Proofing: He spent a total of $43,000 on a soundproof booth and renovations required to outfit a nearby storage closet in his office — despite the fact that the EPA already had a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or soundproof booth, on a separate floor. While building a personal soundproof booth is not illegal, the spending of more than $5,000 in federal funds on furnishings or improvements to the office of a presidential appointee without first notifying members of the appropriations committee of both the Senate and House does violate the General Government Appropriations Act, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Security: Pruitt has a 24/7 security team comprised of 19 agents with at least 19 vehicles. The combined salaries for the security team cost at least $2 million a year alone. He also reportedly used the security team on unofficial business, including a family trip to Disneyland and a Rose Bowl game.
Management: At least five EPA officials have been reassigned under Pruitt after questioning his spending and management of the EPA. One of them, Kevin Chmielewski, was appointed by Trump and placed on administrative leave without pay.
Condo: Most recently, Pruitt came under fire for leasing a bedroom in a condo owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist regulated by the EPA. He paid a reported $50 a night for the room and only paid for it on the nights he slept there. In total, Pruitt paid $6,100 for the room, equaling roughly $1,000 a month.