Pruitt: Staff dropping the ball on ‘real, tangible’ problems

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 19, 2017

U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt wants a public fight over climate science, and he thinks his agency’s staff isn’t acting urgently enough on “real” environmental problems like toxic waste cleanup.

Those were some of his key points yesterday as he spoke to an appreciative audience at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Pruitt used his remarks, which served as a warmup act for President Trump’s address to the influential conservative group later in the night, to skewer scientists, environmentalists and the Obama administration. He also reminded the audience at a Washington hotel of his progress in reversing Obama-era air, water and climate change policies.

On climate change, Pruitt touted his proposal for a “red team, blue team” dialogue on climate science, which would pit researchers critical of the science of human-caused warming against mainstream scientists. He said he was open to the eventual outcome of the monthslong exercise.

“If it poses an existential threat, I want to know,” he said.

He expressed skepticism that scientists could pinpoint an “ideal” average surface temperature for the Earth. Scientists do grapple with the temperature threshold at which catastrophic warming would become inevitable, but most say that warming levels north of 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels would usher in a host of global challenges.

He also criticized EPA staffers’ “lack of urgency” on “real” environmental objectives, including Superfund cleanups.

“As I was engaged in meetings at the office, there just appeared to be a lack of urgency, a lack of focus, a lack of energy to do what’s right to serve the American people in a fundamental way to provide real, tangible environmental outcomes in water, air and Superfund. So we’re getting back to basics.”

Pruitt also used the Heritage podium to preview a new directive to be released next week that would limit the role scientific experts who receive EPA grants can play in advising the agency on policy.

The number of scientists who sit on EPA’s expert advisory boards and receive backing from the agency “causes question on the independence and the veracity and the transparency of the recommendations that are coming our way,” he said. “Next week we’re going to fix that.”

Pruitt also celebrated Monday’s agencywide directive aimed at dismantling what conservatives term “sue and settle,” whereby the agency reaches a settlement agreement with litigants outside of court on rulemaking issues. The term was generally used to decry Obama-era settlements with environmental litigants pressing for tougher or sooner environmental rules, but Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted that the same arrangements are reached with industry.

But he said Pruitt’s directive, which is not binding on him, would likely be applied to lawsuits from environmentalists and not industry.

“So far he has consistently sided with industry on absolutely everything,” Rosenberg said.

The same is likely to hold true for next week’s directive, he said. Academic researchers who rely on government grants to support their work would have to choose between pro bono participation on EPA advisory boards and access to government funds. Meanwhile, scientists employed in industry could act as advisers without making a similar sacrifice.

“It essentially turns the idea of conflict of interest on its head,” he said. “It’s basically a through-the-looking-glass kind of approach.”

Pruitt spoke in glowing terms about Trump’s legacy on environmental issues, especially his “tremendously courageous” decision to leave the Paris climate agreement. Pruitt, who was perhaps the administration’s most outspoken proponent of leaving the 2015 accord, slammed the agreement as a collection of “words and labels” rather than a driver of action.

The EPA administrator also blasted German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her country’s move away from nuclear energy in response to the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan — a shift that increased Germany’s emissions in the near term. Pruitt is rumored to be considering attending next month’s U.N. climate summit in Bonn, Germany, and his comments about Merkel could offer a preview of the message he would take to the talks.

At the Heritage event, he accused the previous administration of offering a false choice between the environment and economic development.

He said that “true environmentalism, from my perspective, is using the natural resources that God has blessed us with to feed the world, to power the world, but with a sensitivity to future generations.”

Pruitt noted that the Clean Air Act has delivered air quality gains since the 1980s, even as the economy grew. It’s a fact his predecessor, former EPA chief Gina McCarthy, often cited to argue that EPA rules would not slow economic growth.