Scott Pruitt Defends the Indefensible

Today's budget testimony from the EPA Administrator leaves us wondering who exactly is protecting our environment and health.
Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Today's budget testimony from the EPA Administrator leaves us wondering who exactly is protecting our environment and health.

On the basis of congressional testimony Thursday from our nation’s top environmental steward, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, I can’t help but wonder: Who’s protecting our environment and health?

It certainly isn’t Scott Pruitt.

In nearly two hours of testimony before a House appropriations subcommittee, Pruitt offered not a single idea for protecting our air, water, and lands from pollution; defending the health of our children; or fighting the growing dangers of climate change.

He focused, instead, on plans to gut the budget and slash the staff of the EPA, roll back protections for clean air and water, and renege on our global commitments to reduce the carbon pollution that imperils the planet.

He never directly discussed climate change, beyond defending President Trump’s reckless decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and vowing to dismantle the single-most important measure we’ve taken at home to address the problem: the plan to clean up the dirty power plants that account for 40 percent of the nation’s carbon footprint.

Pruitt spent so much time talking about coal, gas, and oil, you might have thought he was the secretary of energy. But he pointedly refused to so much as acknowledge the clean, renewable wind and solar power that accounts for two-thirds of all the new electric generating capacity our country has installed over the past two years.

This is an agency head completely disconnected from the environmental threats of our time, the opportunities we have to address these ills, and the agency’s congressional mandate: to protect our environment and health.

On several occasions, Pruitt outright misled the public. Pruitt claimed, for example, that a Supreme Court stay on the Clean Power Plan suggests the plan is unlawful on its merits. The court has indicated no such thing. He also claimed the EPA lacks legal authority to regulate carbon pollution from power plants, factories, and oil refineries. The Supreme Court has ruled otherwise three times―in 2007, 2011, and 2014.

Pruitt repeatedly asserted his respect for the rule of law and process. The truth is, he respects those laws he supports―and challenges the rest. On Thursday, Pruitt directly attacked consent decrees, court-ordered directives that have the full force of law. And his purported fealty to process has not prevented him, in practice, from racing to withdraw or amend without meaningful public comment duly established rules and regulations that were years in the making.

Pruitt, in fairness, was sent to Capitol Hill to defend the indefensible. Subcommittee chairman Ken Calvert, a California Republican representative, was joined by several of his GOP colleagues in telling Pruitt they wouldn’t support the draconian cuts Trump has proposed for the EPA. In essence, they said, the budget threatens our environment, our health, and our economy.

Trump called for cutting the agency’s budget by about one-third, reducing funding to 1990 levels while slashing agency staff by nearly 3,800. That’s a 25 percent reduction in the scientists and experts we depend on to protect us from toxic pollution, contamination, and environmental harm that threatens the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.

A bipartisan consensus made clear that those cuts are a nonstarter in Congress, which holds the power of the purse. “We have a moral obligation to safeguard our planet and ensure that our children and grandchildren have a healthy future,” said New York representative Nita Lowey. “This budget would fall short of that obligation.”

As Ohio representative Marcy Kaptur, put it, “America really can’t afford to shortcut our environment and human health.” White House plans to end an EPA program to clean up industrial pollution, chemical contamination, and invasive species from the Great Lakes drew fire from Kaptur and her fellow Buckeye, Representative David Joyce. Great Lakes restoration is “creating new opportunities and a brighter future for our shoreline communities,” said Joyce. “I view it as a national treasure.”

There was similar criticism for the administration’s proposal to end EPA funding to clean up iconic waterways from the Chesapeake Bay to Puget Sound. “We can’t afford the EPA to check out on Puget Sound recovery,” said Washington representative Derek Kilmer, whose district includes the storied waterway, which he said supports more than 60,000 direct jobs and returns $24 in economic activity for every $1 invested in cleanup.

Calvert said he would work to restore agency funding for the EPA’s popular Energy Star program. Trump has proposed killing the program, which in 2015 cost taxpayers $50 million and saved consumers and businesses some $34 billion in energy costs by helping to identify energy-efficient appliances and equipment.

And on it went.

It’s reassuring, I suppose, that neither party supports Trump’s dark vision of gutting the EPA. After all, as Nevada representative Mark Amodei, put it, “Nobody’s standing on the rooftops begging for dirty air and dirty water and dirty soil.”

The larger question is, what’s the plan for protecting those resources, defending public health, and going after the central environmental challenge of our time? We didn’t get an answer Thursday from the man who’s supposed to be the nation’s top environmental steward. Even when Congress restores much of the EPA funding Trump seeks to end, the administration has told us what its priorities are: protecting big polluters, not our environment and health.

Pruitt affirmed those objectives, making clear that he’ll continue to try to dismantle the Clean Power Plan, move forward with efforts to revoke the Clean Water Rule―which protects the streams that feed drinking water sources for one in every three Americans, along with countless wetlands―and otherwise weaken or eviscerate the safeguards we all depend on to protect our environment and health.

The American people deserve better. Pruitt needs to stop trying to defend the indefensible and focus instead on defending our environment and health.


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