Pruitt on climate science: ‘I have a whole plan’

Source: Niina Heikkinen, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, December 5, 2017

U.S. EPA’s transition team had planned a much harder attack on the agency’s ability to address climate change, according to a former member.

A draft of President Trump’s “energy independence” executive order had initially directed EPA to reconsider the endangerment finding, said David Schnare, a transition and “beachhead” team member at EPA who helped draft the order.

In an interview with E&E News, Schnare recounted being disappointed as he reviewed the final order with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. References to the endangerment finding had been removed, and Schnare raised objections.

“And he said, ‘Dave, I’m way ahead of you on that; I have a whole plan,'” Schnare said, quoting Pruitt. “Well, he didn’t have a plan. He didn’t know what he was going to do, and whatever he thought he was going to do he has had to change his mind on a couple of times now.”

The endangerment finding provides the scientific basis for the agency’s climate regulations, stating that greenhouse gas emissions are harmful to human health and welfare. If the Trump administration fails to undo it, conservatives fear that rules to reduce emissions could be resurrected under future presidents.

“The endangerment finding is a critical policy finding because it drives an enormous number of mandates,” said Schnare.

Trump signed the final version of the executive order at the end of March, leading to a wide-reaching regulatory review that sparked the reconsideration of the Clean Power Plan and the end of a federal methane-reduction target, among other actions.

Schnare, who worked at EPA for more than 30 years, gained notoriety for questioning mainstream climate science and for a series of lawsuits aimed at obtaining the emails of individual climate scientists. Schnare abruptly left the beachhead team at EPA, citing conflicts in leadership style with Pruitt.

More recently, Schnare has spoken at meetings organized by the Heartland Institute for potential participants in a “red team, blue team” debate on mainstream climate science.

While the endangerment finding didn’t make it into the final executive order, discussions around it reached high into the White House. The transition team spoke with the staff of then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and “had the ear” of former chief strategist Stephen Bannon, Schnare said. The team did not discuss the issue directly with the president, his children or his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, according to Schnare. However, Kushner was briefed on the issue, Schnare added.

Schnare said he now agrees with the decision to omit the endangerment finding from the executive order. But he wasn’t happy with the decision at first.

“At the time, I wasn’t thinking clearly enough that you have to start with the science. I was just thinking we could just go back and look at the endangerment finding. Well, you can’t. And so taking that out of there bothered me but probably wasn’t a bad idea,” he said.

Schnare said he considers the recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment a major, but not insurmountable, legal obstacle to reviewing the endangerment finding. The report says man-made climate change is an imminent threat. Schnare said that after he left the transition team, he urged the White House to delay releasing the assessment report, but the White House declined, saying it would look like “political malingering.”

“The only way, with this other report in place, for EPA could do it would be a point-by-point refutation of each of the points made [in the endangerment finding]. That’s a lot of work; it could be done,” he said.

Schnare said that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, rather than EPA, would be better-suited to reviewing climate science. The office is currently without a director. He noted the importance of filling that position in order to begin reviewing climate science.

Ultimately, discussion on the transition team shifted away from the endangerment finding to focus on exiting the Paris Agreement, the landmark international climate accord. This action was also poised to be included in the “energy independence” executive order but was split off into a separate order that both the Department of Energy and EPA transition teams worked on.

“It really came down to — nothing to do with environmental quality — it had to do with, is this or is this not a treaty and what does it commit us to, and that’s how the decision got made,” he said. “So this whole issue of endangerment finding is out there, people are concerned about it on both sides, but there is no obvious path at this point that anyone has sorted.”

Myron Ebell, the former head of the transition team at EPA and director of global warming and international environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, declined in an email to confirm discussions about the endangerment finding with the White House or EPA. However, he noted that the plan was written to implement “every promise” made by Trump during the campaign.

“Getting out of the Paris Climate Treaty was a top line promise that Mr. Trump made repeatedly. Re-opening the Endangerment Finding was a lower level campaign commitment that was to my knowledge only made once in a questionnaire that Mr. Trump submitted to the Institute for Energy Research,” Ebell said. “So I would say that re-opening the Endangerment Finding was definitely a campaign promise, and therefore you can infer that it was contained in the transition plan.”