Scott Pruitt on a mission to change the culture of the EPA

Source: By Ledyard King, USA Today • Posted: Tuesday, November 28, 2017

WASHINGTON — EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt isn’t just dismantling the Clean Power Plan and other high-profile environmental programs of the Obama era. He’s on a mission to re-engineer the agency’s culture by returning power to states and away from the Washington bureaucrats and coastal elites he said have led it astray.

The EPA, for example, is doing away with the “sue-and-settle” approach that Pruitt said improperly allowed the Obama administration to circumvent laws by rewriting regulations behind closed doors with friendly environmental groups who filed lawsuits.

The agency also has rewritten membership rules for the agency’s advisory boards, so that both industry advocates and academics from Midwestern and Mountain states — which Pruitt said were under-represented — have greater influence when counseling agency leaders on new rules.

And he’s adopted a “red team/blue team” model designed to challenge climate change assumptions that global warming is occurring and humans are the primary cause — a view endorsed both by the vast majority of scientists and by a massive federal report the White House issued earlier this month.

Pruitt, who challenged the Clean Power Plan as Oklahoma attorney general, said he’s plowing ahead with the rollback of the rule designed to curb carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants despite the report’s conclusions.

And he said the red team/blue team approach that promotes “curious inquiry and continued analysis” is integral to the rigorous self-analysis he believes the EPA has been lacking in recent years.

“I’m an attorney. I believe in bringing people together in an open process to encourage peer review, that’s what science is,” Pruitt said during a recent interview in his office. “We shouldn’t run from that … That’s something we ought to embrace as a culture and I think as an agency.”

Red Team/Blue Team

Of all Pruitt’s moves to reshape an agency whose authority he frequently challenged in court, the red team/blue team strategy has raised some of the loudest alarm bells among his many critics who consider it an attack on settled science.

The exercise was designed at the height of the Cold War to assess Soviet reactions to various scenarios. And that’s where it belongs — not to relitigate the proven facts of climate science, said former New Jersey GOP Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who served as EPA administrator under George W. Bush.

“That Mr. Pruitt seeks to use the power of the EPA to elevate those who have already lost the argument is shameful, and the only outcome will be that the public will know less about the science of climate change than before,” she wrote in a opinion column for The New York Times entitled “How not to run the EPA”

Ken Cuccinelli, a Pruitt ally and former Republican attorney general from Virginia, said the EPA administrator rightly believes the agency needs to return to its roots and abandon quixotic pursuits Obama conducted on global warming embodied by the Clean Power Plan and the decision to sign on to the international treaty known as the Paris Accord.

“The previous administration weaponized this agency,” Cuccinelli said. “They were assaulting America through the EPA. Scott believes in clean water and clean air. There’s never been any doubt about that. But all of the other creative stuff is the kind of stuff that political elites want to spend their time on and if it affects Americans all it does is reduce their opportunities.”

Changing a culture

Pruitt arrived at EPA under a mutual cloud of hostility.

He had sued the agency 14 times on behalf of Oklahoma challenging a variety of regulations and billing himself as “a leading activist against EPA’s activist agenda.” A month after he took the helm in February, the budget released by President Trump, an ardent EPA critic, proposed gutting the $8.2 billion agency by nearly a third.

In turn, Pruitt was opposed loudly by hundreds of former EPA employees, and more quietly by some current ones. They feared he would assist the petrochemical industry he grew close to in Oklahoma while ignoring the carefully constructed science that served as the foundation of many public health protections.

Subsequent cuts in pollution enforcement and the departure of hundreds of veteran EPA staffers through a buyout program have given environmental groups more reason to worry.

Nearly a year into his tenure, Pruitt still feels the resistance from employees who have yet to buy into his message that the EPA ought to work more with business to find mutually acceptable solutions when it comes to public health.

“The most challenging thing that we encounter (at EPA) is this thinking, this attitude that we as a country have to choose between growth and jobs and being good stewards of our environment,” he recently told an audience at the conservative Federalist Society National Lawyers Convention. “We can do both. But the past few years, we’ve been told it’s prohibition, it’s put up a fence, it’s do not touch. And frankly I don’t think that’s consistent with the law. I don’t think that’s consistent with how we’ve done business as a country.”

His many critics say that’s code for giving the energy industry and other polluters carte blanche to maximize profit with little regard for environmental damage.

Normally soft-spoken Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, described Pruitt during his confirmation process earlier this year as “hostile to the basic protections to keep Americans and our environment safe.”

Back to basics

As part of his effort to change the culture at EPA, Pruitt is touting a “back-to-basics “ agenda that emphasizes partnerships with states and issues he calls central to the agency’s mission when Congress created it in 1970.

He’s prioritizing cleanup of toxic Superfund sites, lead-tainted drinking water systems, and abandoned mines.

Those issues, he said, took a back seat the previous eight years as the Obama administration engaged in regulatory over-reach on climate change and the “Waters of the U.S.” rule that spelled out that streams, rivers and other bodies can be regulated by the federal government.

More: Pruitt moves to shake up EPA advisory boards, further antagonizing environmental activists

More: Exclusive: EPA’s Pruitt vows to continue rolling back rules despite alarming climate report

More: Rollback of Clean Power Plan rule by EPA Administrator Pruitt won’t happen overnight

“Our job is to administer statutes,” he said in the interview. “We have to act based on the authority given to us by Congress. When this agency and other agencies in the past have gone askew is when they’ve created and filled in the vacuum. That’s what they did with the Clean Power Plan … We’re correcting that.”

Pruitt points to Superfund as an area that previous administrators should have taken more time to address. He’s visited a lead-contaminated site in East Chicago, Ind., and the Gold King mine in Colorado (where a mistake by an EPA contractor in 2015 led to a major spill) to emphasize the program’s importance.

He often talks about the problems at the West Lake Landfill near St. Louis and how the EPA still hasn’t decided how to proceed 27 years after it was tagged as a Superfund site.

“Not clean it up. Not fix the problem. But just simply decide,” he told the Federalist Society.

More than half of the original 406 sites from 1983 remain on the list. On average, it takes about 19 years for a site to be removed from the list, according to to the Government Accountability Office.

Gina McCarthy, who served as EPA administrator during Obama’s second term, brushed aside the notion that Superfund was not a priority under her watch. And she said Pruitt’s view of his agency’s role is so narrow it’s imperiling public health.

“It is just ridiculous to think that you can ignore the most significant threats to public health today while chasing Superfund sites that have been around for 20 years,” she said. “You don’t make those choices. You do both.”

She said Pruitt’s plan to address the nation’s most toxic sites will be much tougher if Congress goes along with Trump’s 2018 budget proposal to slash by $330 million the nearly $1.1 billion Superfund received this year.

“The challenge has been resources constraints,” she said. “So for an administrator to say he’s going back to basics and even caring about doing a better job with Superfund while he’s defending a budget that would dismantle the agency and reduce Superfund, it doesn’t seem like a very consistent message to me.”


Cuccinelli acknowledges that it is an odd pairing to have Pruitt, someone from “fly-over country,” heading an agency “favored by the cocktail party set.”

But he thinks it will take someone like the Kentucky-born, former Cincinnati Reds baseball prospect to shake up an agency in need of cultural re-orientation.

“God forbid we have an administrator of the EPA who thinks it’s important to obey the law and Scott does.” he said.

Pruitt doesn’t use the term political elites when he describes his predecessors at the EPA but it’s clear he considers himself someone attuned to the needs of states, especially the red ones that resented much of the Obama environmental agenda.

It’s one reason he took the unprecedented step last month of barring scientists who receive EPA grants from serving on any of the agency’s nearly two dozen advisory boards. The move to eliminate what Pruitt described as “political science” opened up seats for researchers representing industries and institutions based in the middle of the country whose input he said hasn’t always been valued.

Robert Johnson, an economics professor at Clark University in Massachusetts and a past member of the EPA Science Advisory Board, criticized Pruitt’s decision.

The advisory board “has always been bastion of truth and independent scientific advice that withstood changes in political administrations and differences of political opinion,” Johnson. “That changed (with Pruitt’s act).”

Pruitt also speaks of the importance of restoring “federalism” where states have an equal seat at the table when it comes to implementing clean air and water programs.

McCarthy pushed back on his interpretation.

“Federalism does not mean that the agency doesn’t do its work in accordance with Congress. And Congress, on issues like the Clean Air Act, did not give states the role of primacy,” she said.

Nonetheless, members of Congress who clashed with Obama are clearly delighted that Pruitt is driving an agenda that many of their constituents back home like.

When Pruitt last month told an audience of coal miners in Hazard, Ky., that “the war on coal is over” as he announced the administration’s plan to repeal the Clean Power Plan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., seemed clearly tickled.

“It’s great to have an administrator of the EPA,” McConnell said as he introduced Pruitt, “who’s not afraid to come to Kentucky.”