When you consider the impressive list of people that the Trump administration has shown the door since February – Tillerson, Shulkin, Porter, McMaster, Hicks and Cohn – it may seem likely that Scott Pruitt, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, will soon be next. Despite this, I am willing to bet that he will remain at his post for many months to come.
Pruitt is better at his job than almost anyone else currently serving in government. In addition to orchestrating the United States’ exit from the Paris Climate Agreement, in the last year Pruitt’s EPA has taken more than 20 deregulatory actions. His stature among deep red members of the Republican Party and skills as an environmental lawyer also mean that it would be very difficult to push a replacement of equal talent through the Senate in the next six months.
Love him or hate him, Pruitt’s experience leading legal attacks against the Obama administration as Oklahoma’s Attorney General makes his set of skills unmatched. He has a deep understanding of the inter-workings of the EPA and how to undo its current state of leftist crony-corruption – including the advisory science committees packed with academics who receive grants from the EPA itself; and the sue-and-settle agreements that allow environmental groups to sue the government and then get paid through legal settlements before reaching court.
You can therefore blame the ravenous beast that is climate change politics – one that gorges on the bones of political compromise and drinks the blood of efforts to balance empirical science with economic growth – for environmentalists’ belief that he needs to be stopped before he does more harm.
As is often the case in the age of President Trump, no good deed or policy gets attention even when there are signs of success. On two policy issues in particular, Pruitt is focusing the EPA closer to its original mandate of cleaning up industrial pollution.
First, new attention is being placed on the more than 1,300 Superfund pollution sites initially targeted for clean up in the 1970s but have languished with little or progress in decades. A Superfund site is any land within the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified as a risk to human health. The Superfund budget gained $61 million in the 2019 budget after several years of decline.
Second, the EPA recently decided to revise Obama-era fuel economy standards on regulatory grounds. Auto emissions in the United States are governed by three different agencies: the EPA, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). For decades, carmakers have wanted one national regulator to cover all cars and light-trucks sold across the country. Even the Obama administration recognized the pressing need to address both the substance and structure of the automotive industry’s emission regulation. But in the waning days of his administration, Obama prematurely locked in long-term decisions regarding pollution standards that violated the spirit of an agreement between the federal government and U.S. automakers, putting domestic automakers at a likely disadvantage to foreign competition.
Now that Congress is back in Washington D.C. after a two-week Easter recess, there will be more political topics to take up cable television time than the Pruitt “covfefe.”* This means that Pruitt has time to regroup, lick his wounds and prepare for new battles.
If Pruitt survives to fight another day, as I think he may, it will be a rare example of someone within the Trump universe who triumphs over political perception thanks to his policy substance. In a strange way, it is a victory. I guess policy still matters in Washington.
* A media controversy whose outcome would only occur during a Trump presidency.