War on the EPAView film
NEWSCASTER: President Trump getting ready to take a major swipe at former President Barack Obama’s legacy on climate change legacy.
NEWSCASTER: The president’s executive order today calls for reviewing the Clean Power Plan.
NEWSCASTER: According to EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, the president’s order will replace the Obama plan with a pro-growth approach to regulation.
NARRATOR: Two months after he became president, Donald Trump arrived at the Environmental Protection Agency for a ceremony unlike anything the agency had ever seen.
Pres. DONALD TRUMP: I want to acknowledge the truly amazing people behind me on the stage, our incredible coal miners.
NARRATOR: He was there to fulfill a campaign promise—
Pres. DONALD TRUMP: We love our coal miners.
NARRATOR: —to begin undoing one of President Obama’s signature achievements in the fight against climate change, the Clean Power Plan.
GINA MCCARTHY, EPA Administrator, 2013-17: You know what was most awkward about watching the signing of that executive order was the fact that they were doing it at EPA. To me, it was not just a signal to his base, but a real shot across the bow to the agency itself. And— and it was— it was disturbing.
Pres. DONALD TRUMP: The miners told me about the attacks on their jobs and their livelihoods. They told me about the efforts to shut down their mines, their communities and their very way of life. I made them this promise. We will put our miners back to work.
BOB MURRAY, CEO, Murray Energy Corp.: Mr. Trump, he acknowledged me in the audience. And if you look at the press releases on it, the back of my bald head is in the pictures.
ERIC LIPTON, The New York Times: The notion that Bob Murray of Murray Coal was at the EPA headquarters celebrating action by the EPA was, like, so completely fiction.
Pres. DONALD TRUMP: My administration is putting an end to the war on coal.
BETSY SOUTHERLAND, Dir., EPA Office of Science & Tech., 2012-17: I would say that people were— were really devastated by that, that it was considered to be really an open slap in our face.
ERIC SCHAEFFER, Dir., EPA, Civil Enforcement, 1997-2002: What it conveyed is, “This is a hostile takeover. You, the scientists and lawyers and engineers at the agency, are no longer valued. This is a political operation.”
NARRATOR: It was a victory for Scott Pruitt, the president’s new EPA administrator. For years, he’d been leading the fight against environmental regulations from Washington, like the Clean Power Plan.
Pres. DONALD TRUMP: Ready?
SCOTT PRUITT: We’re ready.
BETSY SOUTHERLAND: In working for both Bushes and for Clinton and Obama, I can say no previous administration has done what the Trump administration is doing at EPA now. There is a clear and present danger to public health and safety in this country, that the repeals this administration is going to undertake are going to go forward. They’re— they’re not going to slow down.
BOB MURRAY: It was eight years of pure hell under the Democrat Party and Obama. But we won! It’s a wonderful victory!
NEWSCASTER: It’s Wednesday April, 22nd, 2009. Good morning, and happy Earth Day today.
NARRATOR: On Earth Day 2009, another new president laid out his agenda for the environment.
NEWSCASTER: The president spends this Earth Day in Iowa touting his energy plan and the creation of green jobs.
NARRATOR: It, too, was a sharp break from his predecessors.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: There’s been some debate about this whole climate change issue. But it’s serious.
BRIAN DEESE, Sr. Adviser to President Obama: Candidate Obama had campaigned on the promise of clean energy and that this could be an economic engine. And that was something that the administration had its eye on from the get-go.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: There’s no question that we have to regulate carbon pollution in some way. The only question is how we do it.
BRIAN DEESE: The focus initially was, “Let’s try to get something done nationally through Congress.”
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: I believe the best way to do it is through legislation that places a market-based cap on these kinds of emissions.
BRIAN DEESE: And two was to say, “Let’s reorient all of the federal agencies around taking seriously the threats of climate change and taking seriously the threats of air pollution and water pollution.”
NARRATOR: Obama’s EPA went to work implementing a series of anti-pollution rules that had been mandated by the courts but neglected by previous administrations.
GINA MCCARTHY: When I got to EPA as the assistant administrator, there were a lot of rules right out of the gate. We had a number of targets, if you will, and it’s called pollution— pollution in the air, pollution in the water, polluting of the land. We had a lot of rules that would potentially impact the energy sector as a whole.
NARRATOR: The idea was not just to clean up pollution, but steer the nation toward cleaner energy like wind and solar and cut emissions from fossil fuels that scientists agree are driving climate change.
GINA MCCARTHY: The fossil industry was, I think rightly, nervous. And so they started immediately going out of the gate, calling it a train wreck, that the administration was going to take all these actions and it was going to shut down the energy system, double the cost, retire facilities, it’s a bad thing to do for the country, for the economy.
MYRON EBELL, Competitive Enterprise Institute: We’re having a hard time keeping up with demand with— with the current regulatory system, the— all the environmental constraints and permitting problems.
NARRATOR: One of the most vocal critics of the Obama EPA was Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank.
MYRON EBELL: Look, we’re not against all regulation. We think that there’s far too much regulation, it’s far too heavy-handed, it’s far too expensive.
I want to talk about global warming for a minute—
NARRATOR: Ebell frequently defended the fossil fuel industry and rejected the threat of climate change.
MYRON EBELL: I think that shows that the models are phony.
NARRATOR: He staked out an extreme position, but other conservatives also expressed skepticism.
JERRY TAYLOR, Former V.P., Cato Institute: If there is a global warming problem, the way a lot of conservatives think about this issue is, Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t a problem. And maybe it will have high costs and maybe it won’t. But I know what the costs will be of constraining the market and taxing the market and restraining fossil fuel production. And since I know that that price will be paid, I am opposed to action until there is a near certainty that climate change is going to be a significant worry in my lifetime.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: Thanks for regulating, EPA! It’s going to cost me $200 to fill up my tank.
NARRATOR: EPA’s critics began running attack ads in oil and gas-producing states.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: Thanks to your nutty global warming regulations, every American may be stuck in a ridiculous car like this.
NARRATOR: Many were produced by Americans For Prosperity, an influential conservative group founded by billionaires Charles and David Koch. Much of the Kochs’ fortune came from oil and gas, and they would spend millions opposing Obama’s initiatives.
DAVID KOCH: We envisioned a mass movement of hundreds of thousands of American citizens from all walks of life standing up and fighting for our economic freedoms that made our nation the most prosperous society in history, and that’s exactly what Americans for Prosperity is doing. [applause]
JANE MAYER, The New Yorker: What they’ve been arguing is that the environmental movement is just something that— that serves the sort of super-rich. It’s kind of like a project of the elites, and that any kind of regulations are going to hurt poor people.
TELEVISION COMMERCIAL: Hey, there. I’m Carlton, a wealthy eco-hypocrite. I inherited my money and attended fancy schools. I own three homes and five cars but always talk with my rich friends about saving the planet. And I want Congress to spend billions on programs in the name of global warming and green energy, even if it causes massive unemployment, higher energy bills and digs people like you deeper into the recession.
GINA MCCARTHY: It was really an all-out attack on the administration. It did start feeding this “war on coal” scenario.
RALLY SPEAKER: Whose coal?
CROWD: Our coal!
RALLY SPEAKER: Whose jobs?
CROWD: Our jobs!
RALLY SPEAKER: So stand up for American workers and the American dream!
MYRON EBELL: I think a lot of people in rural America, the places where people make stuff, dig up stuff and grow stuff for a living— those people came to feel that the federal government is actually waging war on them, and primarily from the Environment Protection Agency.
RALLY SPEAKER: American jobs are regulated out of existence in the name of environmental stewardship!
GINA McCARTHY: There was no question that communities revolving around the coal mining industry would be disadvantaged. But that shift started in the ‘80s.
JERRY TAYLOR: It’s not EPA. It’s the fact that automation has taken away a lot of those jobs. And natural gas has virtually destroyed the industry because it’s a lot cheaper. It gives you a taste for how disconnected from reality a lot of these conservative narratives really are.
TEA PARTY WOMAN: Let’s hear it! Let’s let them hear freedom ring in this country!
NARRATOR: Meanwhile, a wave of anger was beginning to sweep the nation not just against the EPA, but all of Washington, the Tea Party.
NEWSCASTER: Tea Parties all across the nation are giving people the opportunity to sound off about big government.
TEA PARTY MAN: We’re losing our freedoms little by little every day.
NEWSCASTER: Including right here in Oklahoma.
NARRATOR: In Oklahoma, the resentment was particularly strong. Not only had Obama lost every county in 2008, but the state’s economy is heavily dependent on fossil fuel production.
PAT McFERRON, Oklahoma GOP Strategist: One out of seven jobs in Oklahoma are related to oil and gas directly. 22 percent of our state government revenue comes from oil and gas. I mean, it’s a big part of who we are as a state.
NARRATOR: In Oklahoma City, the basketball arena is named after Chesapeake Energy, and the skyline is dominated by oil company headquarters.
NEWSCASTER: The Devon tower, designed to hold up to 3,000 Devon employees. At over 900 feet, it will be the tallest building in Oklahoma.
NARRATOR: But with the EPA aggressively pursuing a clean energy agenda, all of that seemed suddenly at risk.
PAT McFERRON: Oklahoma stands— is a little unique when it comes to— to global climate change because if— if you’re going to cost your friends and neighbors their jobs, you want to be damn certain you’re right.
And I think much of middle America gets concerned that the federal government will regulate us for the benefit of the people living on the coasts.
MAN AT TOWN HALL: Seems to me like our government has gotten completely out of control. It appears that they are becoming our rulers instead of our representatives.
TYLER LAUGHLIN, Campaign Mgr., Pruitt for AG 2010: You could just see the angst in people’s eyes, and they wanted somebody to do something about it.
RALLY SPEAKER: Ladies and gentlemen, the next attorney general, Scott Pruitt!
NARRATOR: That somebody would be Scott Pruitt—
SCOTT PRUITT: Well, that’s a great introduction.
NARRATOR: —a former state senator and minor league baseball team owner running a very unconventional campaign for state attorney general.
SCOTT PRUITT: There’s a mentality that comes out of Washington that says that they know best, that they want to run every aspect of our life, that they want to manage our life. They think they’re smarter than we are, and they want to tell us what to do in every aspect. And I want to say to you this movement that we’re about is bigger than a party.
TYLER LAUGHLIN: Our opponent at the time was selling the traditional attorney general message, and that was just criminal justice.
SCOTT PRUITT: I’m Scott Pruitt. I’m running for attorney general.
NARRATOR: Pruitt’s campaign was different. Rather than just pledging to fight crime, he was pledging to fight Washington.
SCOTT PRUITT: Here’s the truth. I will fight the Obama administration. I’m Scott Pruitt. I ask for your vote.
TYLER LAUGHLIN: The congressmen aren’t going to do anything about it. They’re not holding the agencies at the federal level accountable. By gosh, we will.
SCOTT PRUITT: Number one, I’m going to establish an office of federalism internal to the AG’s office. It will— it will be an office or a division where I will retain attorneys that will wake up each day, go to bed each night with one thought in mind, “How do we make your constitutional liberties and freedoms real against Washington’s encroachment?”
TYLER LAUGHLIN: I mean, it— it was a unique idea at the time.
NARRATOR: The election was a landslide.
SCOTT PRUITT: Well, you know, it’s a big night. Oklahomans have sent a very clear message that they want an advocate in the attorney general’s office to make sure that we give meaning to the Constitution, that as Washington D.C. has passed items like “Obama care,” the EPA’s overreach, they want an advocate in the court to make sure that we protect their freedoms. And I’m looking forward to being that advocate.
NEWSCASTER: Well, Republicans swept statewide races here in Oklahoma last night. And it was a big night for Republicans across the nation.
NARRATOR: Pruitt’s victory coincided with the nationwide Tea Party wave that put the Republicans in the control of the House.
NEWSCASTER: Angry voters flocked to the GOP, which will take control of the House of Representatives.
NARRATOR: The election was also a victory for the fossil fuel industry and for the Koch brothers. They’d backed Pruitt, and groups they’d funded, including Americans for Prosperity, spent close to $20 million to help elect a Republican majority.
REPORTER: Mr. Koch, are you proud of the Tea Party movement and what they’ve achieved the past year or two?
DAVID KOCH: Yeah, there’s some extremists there, but the rank and file are just normal people like us. And I admire them. It’s probably the best grass roots uprising since 1776, in my opinion.
NARRATOR: Americans for Prosperity had sought a commitment from candidates.
JANE MAYER, The New Yorker: They had pushed a pledge for candidates who were running. To get their money, these candidates had to pledge to do nothing about global warming that would cost a cent. There were something like 156 members of Congress signed this pledge.
JERRY TAYLOR, Former V.P., Cato Institute: Every Republican who had talked about the need to address climate action found something else to talk about.
NARRATOR: There was now little chance Obama could get Congress to act on climate change.
BRIAN DEESE, Sr. Adviser to President Obama: We were on our heels politically and in a situation where it was difficult to drive a proactive agenda around climate change. And I think that was a source of constant frustration for the president.
NARRATOR: But Obama’s EPA didn’t let up. It continued to pressure the fossil fuel industry with anti-pollution regulations. In Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt was keeping tabs.
TYLER LAUGHLIN: We had an hour-and-a-half each and every day to and from the office where he’s reading rules that are being issued by the federal agencies, and it just pained him.
NARRATOR: Pruitt wasted no time delivering on his campaign promise to fight Washington. He established what he called a federalism unit, a special team that would fight federal rules imposed on Oklahoma. At the same time, he dismantled an environmental protection unit his Democratic predecessor had created.
DREW EDMONDSON, Fmr. Attorney General, Oklahoma: For me, it was a sad thing to watch, the dissolving of these units. My successor spent his time and his federalism unit attacking rules and regulations instead of enforcing them.
NEWSCASTER: New at 5:00— more Oklahomans could lose their jobs altogether if the EPA forces the state’s major power companies to make some costly changes.
NARRATOR: At the time, Oklahoma’s largest power company was suing the EPA, claiming it had overreached its authority when it imposed an expensive plan to reduce emissions from burning coal.
KIMBER SHOOP, Sr. Counsel, OK Gas & Electric, 2006-17: Overreach really was when EPA decided to usurp the state’s authority and substitute its own judgment for a decision that the state made.
TV HOST: Scott, welcome to the show.
SCOTT PRUITT: Well, it’s good to be here. Thanks for the opportunity.
NARRATOR: Pruitt filed suit and joined the company’s case.
SCOTT PRUITT: The EPA the first quarter this year said, “We don’t like your plan and we’re kicking it out,” and they’re in the process of forcing upon the state of Oklahoma something called a federal implementation plan, which I think is outside the statutory obligation or authority they have in the Clean Air Act.
NARRATOR: Pruitt had backed a more lenient state plan to reduce emissions that was favored by the company.
KIMBER SHOOP: We found that he was aligned with our position with regards to pushing back and making sure that the state retained the authority to do what it thought was best.
NARRATOR: Oklahoma’s oil and gas companies were also feeling pressure from the EPA and looking for support.
CHAD WARMINGTON, Pres., Oklahoma Oil & Gas Assn.: What we felt like was EPA had far exceeded its authority. Whenever you have an agency like that that’s starting to move into an industry where they don’t know as much about it, I think there’s always that, concern— the lack of understanding, of familiarity.
AL ARMENDARIZ, Regional EPA Administrator, 2009-12: There were real environmental problems that we were dealing with. It was sometimes hard for the states to properly enforce the law. People in the oil and gas industry found it really unusual that someone from EPA was actually out there enforcing the law, taking samples, taking pictures, writing citations. They really saw the new administration as something new, as potentially a major threat.
NARRATOR: Scott Pruitt saw himself as their defender.
SCOTT PRUITT: They don’t want us burning what? Fossil fuels. The EPA has an anti-fossil fuel agenda. It’s not anti-coal, it’s not anti-natural gas, it’s anti-fossil fuels, period.
CHAD WARMINGTON: I think it fit with the role of him doing what he could as attorney general to make sure that Oklahoma’s businesses and citizens were protected from— from any— any outside threat, so to speak.
NARRATOR: With Pruitt on their side, the big oil and gas companies looked beyond Oklahoma for other AGs to push back against the EPA. They were donating to a group called RAGA, the Republican Attorneys General Association.
ERIC LIPTON: There were hundreds of thousands of dollars that started to come in. And you know, in presidential politics, that’s not a great deal of money. For attorney generals, it is a considerable sum. But the real story is, Why is the energy sector donating so much money? What is it they are buying?
NARRATOR: New York Times reporter Eric Lipton began digging into the relationship between corporations and attorneys general. He showed up at a RAGA fundraiser.
ERIC LIPTON: I just walked in unannounced and was never asked who I was or why I was there and saw lobbyists who were writing checks right in front of me and handing the checks to the attorneys general and to their aides. And they were just walking from room to room, the lobbyists. I was just amazed by how much of a kind of a factory assembly line the whole thing was and how institutionalized it had become, and again, that this involved the top law enforcement officials from each of the states. It was— I was really startled by it.
SCOTT PRUITT: So thank you for the opportunity to be with you today and—
NARRATOR: Scott Pruitt was a star at RAGA and served two terms as chairman.
DREW EDMONDSON: His term kind of coincided with that upsurge in the rise of corporate influence. He certainly didn’t cause it, but he benefited from it, and in his participation with RAGA, he encouraged it.
NARRATOR: Lipton wanted to know more about the extent of Pruitt’s relationship with the energy industry.
SCOTT PRUITT: It’s about making sure that the checks and balances are honored—
NARRATOR: So he filed a public records request for his emails.
ERIC LIPTON: It took months. It was not until I finally traveled to Oklahoma that I got the documents. When I first got to his office, there were these large paintings on the wall. It just struck me like this is the real Wild West, that, “We will dispense our own justice.”
And his public information officer comes over with this huge stack of documents with a rubber band around it, like, you know, a couple feet worth of— of printed-out paper, no electronic copy. And I kept seeing Devon Energy’s logo in the emails and all kinds of requests for meetings with him and requests for him to send letters, and you know, complaints about various Obama rules.
NARRATOR: Lipton found a letter that Pruitt had written to the EPA disputing the science behind a proposal to limit methane emissions from oil and gas rigs. Then he noticed something else.
ERIC LIPTON: What I discovered was that the letters that Scott Pruitt had written were identical copies, in most cases, of the draft letters that Devon had sent him. He had taken those letters and simply put them on a stationery and sent them in as if they were essentially the state law enforcement official opinion. I was, like, “Holy [expletive].”
NARRATOR: Devon executives thanked Pruitt for his help.
ERIC LIPTON: It was not illegal. I was just struck by, “Well, whose interest is he pursuing here? Is he— is he really acting on behalf of the state residents or is he acting as an attorney for Devon?” They were paying, you know, indirectly in the form of campaign contributions large amounts of money to his cause, and he was then taking actions that benefited their cause. And that was disturbing to me.
NARRATOR: Both Devon and Pruitt told Lipton they did nothing improper. Lipton’s series would eventually win a Pulitzer Prize.
INTERVIEWER: What was the impact of that New York Times series here in Oklahoma?
PAT McFERRON: The impact of that New York Times series was minimal in Oklahoma. If anything, I think it probably helped him here because if you’re fighting for oil and gas, you’re fighting for Oklahoma. And I think that was a real positive for Scott.
NARRATOR: By 2012, Pruitt’s reputation as a pro-industry fighter was spreading. He caught the attention of Andrew Miller, a former Virginia attorney general who was now representing Southern Company, a coal-burning utility.
ANDREW MILLER, Lobbyist, Southern Company: Southern Company was very concerned. Would it have to close certain coal-fired facilities, et cetera. So it was important to maintain a line of communication with somebody who understood the problem.
NARRATOR: Miller wrote to Pruitt that he was worried about four more years under the Obama EPA. He urged him to team up with other AGs and fossil fuel lobbyists to form a unified front against the president.
ERIC LIPTON: Andy Miller argued that they needed to create what he called a strike force that was going to challenge the Obama rules, particularly as they were going into the second term, and that there was hell to pay for oil and gas industry, that they really needed to team up with the coal industry to fight back.
INTERVIEWER: Could you understand why someone might think of this as being somewhat unseemly, that you have corporations and attorneys general partnering up on an action plan to fight federal environmental regulations?
ANDREW MILLER: Not at all. And the reason I say that is you have the Sierra Club partnering with attorneys general on the other side. So it’s all part of the democratic process. It may be messy, but it’s certainly not unseemly. I think you just have to accept that lobbying, properly done in this country, is what makes the wheels of government turn.
NARRATOR: Miller suggested that Pruitt organize a two-day meeting in Oklahoma City. It was called the Summit on Federalism and the Future of Fossil Fuels.
ERIC LIPTON: It was essentially a gathering of the most important brain trust, the corporations, their lawyers, the lobbyists and Pruitt and the Republican attorney generals that all came together and their— and they were there to figure out, How do we stop the environmental rules?
ANDREW MILLER, Lobbyist, Southern Company: As I flew into Oklahoma City after Devon Energy had built its new structure there, the sun was reflecting on the face of that pyramid, and there was this burst of light coming from the pyramid, which I thought was very apt. I think it gave you the impression that energy was here to stay.
The result of the summit was the strike force of litigation, and General Pruitt emerged as, in effect, the commander, the lawyer in chief for AGs who were concerned about what EPA was doing.
NARRATOR: With Obama about to begin his second term, Pruitt and the group were especially concerned about the president imposing action on climate change.
ANDREW MILLER: Prophet Jeremiah speaks to there being a cloud on the horizon no larger than a man’s hand. And then that cloud turns into a terrible storm.
NARRATOR: Four days after the summit in Oklahoma, Pruitt and his allies watched as President Obama took the stage at his second inauguration. Their fears were coming true.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.
BRIAN DEESE: If you go back and you look at that speech, you see a president speaking about climate change with a degree of precision and passion and power.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations!
BRIAN DEESE: The sense of frustration around not being able to put enough priority on this in the first term was palpable. He was sending a signal that this was going to be the moment where he was going to put additional priority on that.
NARRATOR: But the Republican-controlled Congress still wouldn’t work with him on climate change.
Rep. KEVIN CRAMER (R), North Dakota: Barack Obama taking climate change and making it— you know, calling it, you know, the greatest challenge or greatest crisis that faces the country or the world— I think people saw that as alarmism. That kind of extreme rhetoric I think only fuels, if you will— excuse the expression— fuels the opposition that causes us to go to our— to our— to our— to our poles a little bit.
NARRATOR: With the opposition digging in, in Washington and around the country, Obama turned to Gina McCarthy to lead the EPA.
GINA McCARTHY: The first thing he said to me was, “Gina, are you prepared to move forward on climate change?” And I said, “Mr. President, I don’t want the job unless we’re both committed to move forward. And absolutely.” And it was the shortest conversation in human history.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: As I’ve said before, this is going to be a year of action—
NARRATOR: The president’s team decided to make an end run around Congress.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: We are not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help that they need. I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone, and I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward.
Rep. KEVIN CRAMER: When President Obama said that he’ll take matters into his own hand with his pen and his phone, it was such a shot across the bow to the other side that, “I don’t need you.”
NARRATOR: And just as the energy industry had feared, it was Obama’s first target.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: I’m directing the Environmental Protection Agency to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants.
NARRATOR: By executive authority, the EPA would begin developing the Clean Power Plan.
AL ARMENDARIZ, Regional EPA Administrator, 2009-12: It was the first time that this country was going to regulate carbon emissions from the power industry. And the power industry is the largest source of carbon emissions in this country.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: Can we imagine a more worthy goal?
ANDREW MILLER: He just went ahead through executive order and instructions to the agency, “Go ahead and do what I want to have done without congressional endorsement.”
NARRATOR: Scott Pruitt and his strike force had been watching closely.
SCOTT PRUITT: The Constitution in the hands of this president is a very dangerous thing, and he’s demonstrated that many, many times. And as state attorneys general, we are responding.
NARRATOR: As Obama’s clean power plan took shape, the attorneys general would challenge the EPA in a barrage of lawsuits.
SAM OLENS, Georgia Attorney General: I think it’s going to be a series of litigation that we’re involved in. I have six lawsuits just in Georgia against the EPA, and I’m sure my fellow attorneys general have similar numbers of litigation.
NARRATOR: They tried to stop rules, from mercury levels in the air to agricultural waste in water.
ERIC LIPTON: Different states were taking a lead on different pieces of litigation. And they were having these conference calls, in which they would compare notes on, “OK, this file has been filed in this federal court. This appeal is coming up. Who’s going to take the lead on this?”
SCOTT PRUITT: Greg Abbott in Texas. I kid Greg often that he has about 12 or 13 lawsuits against the EPA. We’re trying to catch up here in Oklahoma.
JOHN WALKE, Sr. Atty., Natural Resources Defense Council: I was on the other side of these cases arguing on behalf of public health and a cleaner environment and a safer climate. What you saw from Mr. Pruitt was a “throw the kitchen sink” set of arguments at EPA to try not just to delay these standards or to improve these protections adopted by EPA, but to void them, to nullify them.
NARRATOR: Pruitt would eventually challenge the Obama EPA 14 times, claiming the agency had reached beyond its authority. Most of the legal claims are still unresolved.
TYLER LAUGHLIN, Policy coordinator for AG Pruitt: Scott’s a baseball player. He’s going to get up, keep swinging. If he thinks it’s the right thing to do, he’s going to get up and keep swinging.
NARRATOR: Pruitt swung hardest at the Clean Power Plan, which the EPA finally announced in 2015.
GINA MCCARTHY: Hi, everyone. I’m Gina McCarthy, administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. I am so proud to let you know that the United States has just taken a big step forward on climate change.
NARRATOR: The plan called on states to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuel power plants by the year 2030.
AL ARMENDARIZ: It didn’t require all coal and gas and oil to be phased out in the country. It didn’t ban the use of fossil fuels. It didn’t require any power stations in this country to retire. All it said was, Reduce your emissions by about 30 percent, and we’ll give you a couple decades to do it.
ANDREW MILLER: The Clean Power Plan— if that is put into effect, you’re going to have a significant increase in electric rates in this country. You’re going to have a significant loss of jobs.
NARRATOR: The EPA and some experts who analyzed the plan said it would end up creating jobs. But fears still resonated, as did predications that it would hasten the demise of the coal industry.
BOB MURRAY: It is a strategy way beyond coal companies. Of course, it’s a human issue to me because my employees’ lives are being destroyed.
NARRATOR: On the day the plan was announced, Pruitt and the other AGs were meeting at the Greenbriar Resort in West Virginia with coal baron Bob Murray.
ERIC LIPTON: Bob Murray is a kind of elder statesman of the coal industry and is convinced that— that the Obama administration is— has a war on coal and is hurting his employees and hurting his company and hurting his profits. That day, he was in a private meeting with Republican attorneys general to discuss the Clean Power Plan and how they were going to challenge it.
NARRATOR: Murray wanted Pruitt and the others to join him in a lawsuit against the EPA to stop the plan, claiming federal overreach.
BOB MURRAY: I gave them the work that we had done for the past two years. They listened intently.
NARRATOR: His position was that the plan would cost the coal industry billions while doing little for the environment. And he rejected the overwhelming science that fossil fuel emissions were driving to climate change.
BOB MURRAY: We don’t have a climate change problem. It is not real and not scientifically based. It’s a theology. It’s politics. And it’s an agenda. They packed the U.S. EPA with radical environmentalists, never created a job in their lives, never produced anything for society, but sat there writing rules all day. I have nothing but contempt!
ERIC LIPTON: And then they walk out and they announce after having a briefing with Murray Energy that they’re going to sue.
SCOTT PRUITT: We’re involved with a number of states, West Virginia being our primary partner in challenging the lawfulness of the plan. As I indicated earlier, they’re— it’s the last frontier for President Obama.
NARRATOR: But Obama had a larger agenda, a global agreement to reduce carbon emissions. With the Clean Power Plan, he hoped to persuade other countries to make similar commitments.
BRIAN DEESE: That set off a breakneck set of diplomatic negotiations with the president very involved, flying to India, hosting the Brazilians, trying to broker understandings with the Mexicans and the Canadians, country after country, just trying to get everybody in the tent.
NARRATOR: In late 2015, the diplomacy paid off.
NEWSCASTER: In Paris this morning, a potential landmark deal is being revealed on climate change.
NEWSCASTER: For the first time in history, 195 nations have come together to approve the first global agreement to limit carbon emissions.
Pres. BARACK OBAMA: I’ve come here personally to say that the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it.
GINA MCCARTHY: Paris was an enormous success.
LAURENT FABIUS, French Foreign Minister: I see no objections. The Paris agreement is adopted. [applause]
GINA MCCARTHY: Leaving Paris, it felt like the vast majority of us were about 10,000 feet higher than the plane itself. It was such an elevating moment.
NARRATOR: But while Obama and McCarthy were celebrating the Paris agreement, Scott Pruitt and Bob Murray were still working to stop their climate agenda at home.
BILL O’REILLY, Fox News: Well, it looks like a heated battle is erupting between the Environmental Protection Agency and the Supreme Court.
NARRATOR: Less than two months later, the Supreme Court intervened in Pruitt and Murray’s lawsuit against the Clean Power Plan.
NEWSCASTER: The high court’s order means these regulations can’t go into effect until legal challenges against them are settled.
NARRATOR: Without ruling on the merits of the case, it ordered the EPA to put the plan on hold until the suit was resolved.
GINA MCCARTHY: That was not a good moment for me, for— you know, frankly, I don’t think it was a good moment for America, either.
NEWSCASTER: Hi General. How’re you doing?
NARRATOR: Pruitt was interviewed by a reporter in Oklahoma.
SCOTT PRUITT: The Clean Power Plan, this particular rule has been stopped dead in its tracks and will not survive this presidency.
BOB MURRAY: It invigorated us. I’ve fought this fight every day, and now I’m going to bury the sons of bitches!
NARRATOR: It was the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign and Murray headed off to New York to try to forge another political alliance.
BOB MURRAY: I called Donald Trump’s office at Trump Tower in New York. And when I walked into his office, he was alone. We talked for 50 minutes— I can talk, he can talk— about coal, about the connection between coal miners’ jobs, coal miners’ families. I was so impressed with him.
NARRATOR: Trump began talking more about coal on the campaign trail, and soon he was holding rallies in West Virginia’s coal country.
DONALD TRUMP: I’m just glad to be here because I love you people, the real people. You’re the real, real people. You make this country great. Remember that. [cheers and applause]
NARRATOR: It would become a winning message.
MYRON EBELL: I think he learned an awful lot about America that the other candidates missed.
DONALD TRUMP: They didn’t have ridiculous regulations that put you out of business. They didn’t have these ridiculous rules and regulations that make it impossible for you to compete.
KEVIN CRAMER: The coal miner became the perfect symbol for Donald Trump’s message of making America great again by making America, you know, builders again. The connection between the coal miner as a symbol and what a coal miner does with his or her hands and the big machines and whatnot was the perfect symbol for the Rust Belt of America. That coalition, if you will, of cultures created what is, you know, the Donald Trump phenomenon.
NEWSCASTER: This is a Fox News election alert. Donald Trump is the president of the United States.
NARRATOR: Coal country and the Rust Belt helped propel Trump to victory.
NEWSCASTER: Trump’s victory built on the backs of white working class voters for whom he was the candidate of hope and change.
NARRATOR: As Trump and his team prepared for the transition, they reached out to Myron Ebell with a surprising offer.
MYRON EBELL: He said “Well, Mr. Trump believes that the federal government cannot go on the way it is.” And I said, Well, I agree with that. “And that it requires fundamental transformation.” I said, well, I agree with that. “And that he thinks that the EPA is one of the obstacles to getting the economy going again in heartland America.” And I said, Well, I certainly agree with that. And Mr. Trump has even said that he wants to abolish the EPA. And I said, Well, I agree with that. And he said “Well, that’s why we’re asking you to run the Trump transition team for the EPA.”
GINA McCARTHY: Well, it gave me a clear understanding of— of the direction that the administration was planning to head because Mr. Ebell is one of the big and most vocal climate deniers.
NARRATOR: Ebell began helping to create a plan for the Trump EPA, and it wasn’t long before Scott Pruitt emerged as the pick to take it over.
INTERVIEWER: What was your reaction when President Trump announced Scott Pruitt?
BOB MURRAY: Total delight.
INTERVIEWER: And did you have a hand in recommending Scott Pruitt to the president to be EPA administrator?
BOB MURRAY: No comment.
INTERVIEWER: No comment.
NEWSCASTER: Oklahoma attorney general, Scott Pruitt, named the nominee of president-elect Donald Trump to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
NEWSCASTER: A leading critic of the EPA now in line to take its helm.
NARRATOR: A dozen of Bob Murray’s coal miners showed up at the U.S. Senate in January for Scott Pruitt’s confirmation hearing.
SCOTT PRUITT: How’re you all doing?
NARRATOR: For Pruitt, it was a chance to explain why a critic of the EPA should run it.
SCOTT PRUITT: I believe there is a very important role for the Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, its involvement in protecting our air quality and improving our nation’s waters is extremely important, and the EPA has served a very valuable role historically.
We must reject as a nation the false paradigm that if you’re pro-energy, you’re anti-environment, and if you’re pro-environment, you’re anti-energy.
NARRATOR: Pruitt also expressed his doubts about climate change.
SCOTT PRUITT: Let me say to you science tells us that the climate is changing and that human activity in some manner impacts that change. The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue, and well it should be.
NARRATOR: But Senate Democrats had strong doubts.
Sen. BERNIE SANDERS (D), Vermont: The fear is that the nomination of Mr. Pruitt is a nomination designed to protect the fossil fuel industry and not the environment.
Sen. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D), Rhode Island: We have a meeting agenda from the Republican Attorney Generals Association meeting at the Greenbriar—
NARRATOR: Sheldon Whitehouse, a former attorney general from Rhode Island, pressed Pruitt on his ties to industry.
Sen. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: —mentions a private meeting with Murray Energy.
What the American public deserves is the assurance that people who take government positions are making their decisions based on the merits, not based on prior relationships, present relationships, the expectation of future relationships, all of that. The priority was to get at the conflicts of interest.
Sen. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: You helped raise money for the Republican Attorney Generals Association while you were a member of its executive committee. They received $530,000 from Koch Industries, $350,000 from Murray Energy and $125,000 from Devon Energy. Did you solicit in your role at the Republican Attorney Generals Association any of that funding?
SCOTT PRUITT: I attended fundraising events as an attorney general along with other attorneys general with respect to the RAGA.
Sen. WHITEHOUSE: And did you solicit? Did you ask them for money at RAGA?
SCOTT PRUITT: As I indicated, I attended fundraising events.
Sen. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: In the ordinary course, his conflicts of interest would disqualify him from this position, and were it not for the power of the fossil fuel industry in Congress, then I don’t think he would have had a shot.
CHRIS WALLACE, Fox News: One of President Trump’s most controversial cabinet picks has made it through the Senate. Scott Pruitt was just sworn in moments ago. He will run the Environmental Protection Agency, much to the dismay of many environmentalists.
NARRATOR: A week after Pruitt was confirmed, the president gave his marching orders.
Pres. DONALD TRUMP: Today, this executive order directs each agency to establish a regulatory reform task force.
NARRATOR: It was a mandate to all federal agencies to slash regulations.
JANE MAYER, The New Yorker: What you see now with the Trump administration is the triumph of the anti-environmental movement.
Pres. DONALD TRUMP: Should I give this pen to Andrew? Dow Chemical. [laughter]
JANE MAYER: They are now in control of the government and in control of the regulatory process in a kind of a brazen way we haven’t seen before.
There’s a tendency to ignore what’s going on in places like the EPA, and really radical things are happening there and people aren’t paying attention.
SCOTT PRUITT: Well, let me tell you, there’s been a change of direction, obviously, at the EPA because the war on coal ended. The war on fossil fuels ended.
NARRATOR: To help him, Pruitt hired people with deep ties to industry.
ERIC LIPTON, The New York Times: It’s startling to see the class of people he’s surrounded himself with, the lawyers and lobbyists who were fighting alongside of him to challenge the Obama rules, they are now setting the policies that they were so involved with trying to kill. He is making the regulated the regulators.
NARRATOR: Pruitt also relied heavily on his fellow Oklahoman, the Senate’s leading climate change denier, James Inhofe.
Sen. JAMES INHOFE (R), Oklahoma: We keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record. I ask the chair, you know what this is? It’s a snowball.
NARRATOR: Several of Pruitt’s senior advisers worked for Inhofe at one time.
Sen. JAMES INHOFE: It happens the person who is running the EPA right now is a good friend of mine. In fact, his chief of staff was my chief of staff. So that the abuses that we were subjected to by the overregulation for eight years under Obama are things that we can now change. And we are in the process of doing that. People are not aware of it.
NEWSCASTER: Scott Pruitt promised an aggressive rollback of environmental regulations that had been put in place by former president Obama.
NEWSCASTER: The Environmental Protection Agency dropped a requirement that oil and gas interests report information on methane emissions. Administrator Scott Pruitt said withdrawing the rule will ease burdens on business.
NEWSCASTER: The new head of the Environmental Protection Agency reversed steps to ban a controversial widely used pesticide linked to potential health problems in children and farm workers.
NARRATOR: Soon, Scott Pruitt’s EPA had moved to delay or roll back more than two dozen rules and regulations.
BOB MURRAY: Scott Pruitt— he is the star on the Trump team getting more done probably than any other appointee to date. I gave Mr. Trump what I called an action plan very early. It’s about three-and-a-half pages and— of what he needed to do in his administration. He’s wiped out page one.
NARRATOR: At the top of Murray’s list was the rule that he and Pruitt had sued to stop, Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
CHAD WARMINGTON: You know, I think he’s doing probably kind of exactly what we figured he would do, meaning we’ve— you know, we’re kind of pretty familiar with Scott. I’d say it was a closed door and it’s now open, and in terms of the ability to engage and know that you’re going to have the ability to have a seat at the table. I think that’s the single easiest way to describe kind of what we feel is we’ll just have a seat at the table.
NARRATOR: The EPA would not make Pruitt available for an interview. But long-time staffers have been shocked by the way he’s leading the agency.
BETSY SOUTHERLAND: The political leaders that were brought in did not speak to any of the EPA staff even at the management level. It was really left up to us as staff people to just read the news media, read the executive orders and draw conclusions ourselves.
NARRATOR: Betsy Southerland left the EPA in July after more than 30 years and is the highest-ranking staff member to speak out on television.
BETSY SOUTHERLAND: The atmosphere at the EPA is— is really tense. What everyone is trying desperately to do is to hope against hope that their facts will change Scott Pruitt’s mind, that they’ll be special and they’ll be able to convince the administrator, you know, not to go with whatever the industry people have asked him to do and to give some deference to the— to the science and engineering behind previous regulations that were so thoroughly thought out and so thoroughly justified.
NARRATOR: Southerland saw her own work targeted when she says, without warning, Pruitt announced a rule she helped develop to keep toxic coal waste out of the water supply was up for reconsideration.
BETSY SOUTHERLAND: The first I knew that this rule that we’d worked years to create was up for grabs was when I saw the administrator’s press release that said that, basically, he was going to reconsider the rule because it was a job killer and had a huge economic impact on the country.
NARRATOR: After months of trying, Southerland says she finally met with Pruitt himself to try to explain why the rule was both necessary and cost-effective.
BETSY SOUTHERLAND: It seems like that the die is cast before we even start these elaborate, extensive briefings. He just doesn’t ask any questions. It’s just a mystery as to how you can persuade him to— to not follow exactly what industry asks him to do and instead be— be more accommodating to the facts of the case.
NARRATOR: In a statement, the EPA called Southerland’s account a “false characterization.” They noted she retired for personal reasons with a “six figure taxpayer-funded pension” and was now expressing “faux outrage.”
The rule she worked on was suspended in September, six weeks after her retirement. At her good-bye party, she offered colleagues a grim assessment of the road ahead.
BETSY SOUTHERLAND: Today, the environmental field is suffering from the triumph of myth over truth. The truth is there is no war on coal, there is no economic crisis caused by environmental protection, and climate change is caused by man’s activities.
NEWSCASTER: The EPA started taking down its climate data from the agency’s web site.
NEWSCASTER: Now the Trump administration wants to cut the EPA’s budget by a third.
NEWSCASTER: Scott Pruitt has decided to replace half of the members on its key science advisory board.
NEWSCASTER: President Trump is about to step into the Rose Garden to announce one of the biggest decisions he’s made since taking office.
GINA MCCARTHY: You know, it’s a really good question for me to sort of retrospectively look back and see whether we won a battle and lost the war. Could I have done anything different? I don’t know. I can continue to look back and I’ll probably always ask myself that.
MYRON EBELL: I’ve been involved in a lot of things that people considered lost causes. One of the things I’ve learned is that lost causes aren’t always lost, but that the key is you have to be persistent. It was a culminating moment, I’d say.
Pres. DONALD TRUMP: Say a few words, Scott, please.
MYRON EBELL: We were winning. Our side was winning.
SCOTT PRUITT: Thank you, Mr. President. Your decision today to exit the Paris accord reflects your unflinching commitment to put America first. America finally has a leader who answers only to the people, not to the special interests who’ve had their way for way too long.
BOB MURRAY: Donald Trump has a mandate to keep his campaign promise to withdraw from the climate Paris accord.
INTERVIEWER: You conferred with the president and you told him this.
BOB MURRAY: I did.
SCOTT PRUITT: We owe no apologies to other nations for our environmental stewardship. American people can take comfort because you have their backs. Thank you, Mr. President. [applause]
[Last week, President Trump nominated a lobbyist for Murray Energy to be Scott Pruitt’s second-in-command at the EPA.]
[Yesterday, Pruitt signed a measure to formally repeal the Clean Power Plan, saying he was “righting the wrongs of the Obama administration.”]