Scott Pruitt’s Extremism Makes Him Unfit to Lead EPA

President-elect Donald Trump has nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to be the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt’s primary previous connection to EPA is that he has joined with corporations in multiple lawsuits to overturn federal safeguards that reduce air pollution and water pollution. Mr. Pruitt’s own record and stances confirm that he is too extreme to lead the EPA, and that he would threaten its mission to uphold U.S. environmental laws and protect all Americans.

Litigation Extremism to Overturn EPA Health Protections

As a Pennsylvania religious leader opposed to Mr. Pruitt’s nomination, Rabbi Daniel Swartz, wrote in the Scranton Times-Tribune: “Mr. Pruitt has taken every opportunity to sue the EPA to stop the agency from acting to protect public health and natural resources.”

Mr. Pruitt has filed or joined lawsuits against EPA more than twenty-five times. Most of Mr. Pruitt’s lawsuits have attempted to overturn protections for clean air and clean water. The overwhelming majority have failed.

Consider the extremism of Mr. Pruitt’s anti-health lawsuits by some of the numbers:

  • Mr. Pruitt sued to overturn two EPA clean air standards that are saving up to 45,000 lives, avoiding 530,000 asthma attacks (mostly among children), and 19,700 non-fatal heart attacks—every year. He failed.
  • Mr. Pruitt sued to overturn three EPA clean air rules projected to reduce 5.5 million of tons of harmful sulfur dioxide emissions, 507,000 tons of smog-forming pollutants, 52,000 tons of deadly soot pollution, 40,000 tons of hazardous acid gases, and 40,000 pounds of the neurotoxin, mercury—every year. He failed twice, and his third lawsuit is ongoing while his nomination to head EPA is pending.

Constitutional Extremism

Mr. Pruitt holds troubling, anti-democratic views that are fringe positions even among far right conservatives. He supports amending the Constitution to eliminate citizens’ right to directly elect their U.S. Senators. (starting at 34:40 in linked video) The 17th amendment gave Americans this right in 1913. Mr. Pruitt wants to take America backwards by more than a century to the days when state legislatures appointed our U.S. Senators. Historians have noted there was rampant corruption prior to the 17th amendment with businesses paying state legislators to elect the companies’ preferred U.S. Senators. Mr. Pruitt has called repealing the 17th amendment “essential to the future of Washington working the way that it should.” (video at 35:13) In reality, it is an extreme step backwards from democratic government.

Extremism in Slashing EPA’s Responsibilities

Mr. Pruitt has frequently argued that EPA should have little role in protecting Americans’ health and well-being from air and water pollution. According to Mr. Pruitt, there “are clearly air and water quality issues that cross state lines and sometimes that can require federal intervention. At the same time the EPA was never intended to be our nation's foremost environmental regulator.” (Interestingly, the video of Mr. Pruitt expressing this view and others has been marked private and hidden from the public on YouTube some time after December 29th, when NRDC transcribed his remarks.) But Mr. Pruitt has not been shy about this radical notion, saying elsewhere that EPA’s role should be limited to “water and air quality issues that traverse state lines.

With these statements, Mr. Pruitt apparently rejects fundamental provisions of the Clean Air Act that require the EPA to set national public health standards—standards that guarantee protection to all Americans, regardless of where they live, and protect states from a “race to the bottom” in which they are pressured to compete for industry by offering lax health and environmental standards.

To be clear, there is no legal support in U.S. environmental laws, nor any support in the history of those laws, for limiting EPA’s role or responsibilities narrowly to pollution that crosses state lines. No federal environmental law limits EPA’s authority to regulate pollution remaining solely within a state’s boundaries. The Supreme Court has upheld EPA actions and responsibilities repeatedly when the agency regulates pollution and polluting activities occurring solely inside a state’s borders. The Clean Air Act, for example, requires EPA to set safe health standards for “national, ambient” air in the United States, no matter where Americans live. Were Mr. Pruitt to pursue his personal agenda at EPA to limit the agency to just pollution that crosses state lines, this would be radical, unprecedented and illegal.

Industry-Entangled Extremism

Mr. Pruitt slapped the Oklahoma attorney general’s letterhead onto a letter written by lawyers for Devon Energy, an oil and gas company, and shipped the letter off to EPA without disclosing the industry authorship. The New York Times broke the story about Mr. Pruitt’s deep entanglement in a “secret alliance” between fossil fuel companies and state attorneys general allied with Mr. Pruitt. 

In a similar vein, Mr. Pruitt retained private law firms in Washington, DC and elsewhere to sue EPA—without following an Oklahoma state law that requires the attorney general’s office to report all outside attorney contracts and payments. Prior attorneys general had followed this law, but when Mr. Pruitt took office he quietly stopped following the law and has failed to report for the past 5 years. After a reporter confronted Mr. Pruitt’s office with this failure in January, 2017, while his EPA nomination is pending, his office then disclosed that it spent over $1 million on private law firms since he took office.

In Mr. Pruitt’s lawsuits to overturn EPA’s Clean Power Plan, he has accepted representation from Baker Hostetler, a powerful Washington, DC law firm. Five of the firms’ lawyers worked on the state’s lawsuits against EPA over a more than two year period, providing their expensive legal services pro bono, meaning for free. Conveniently, this law firm also represents fossil fuel companies and files lawsuits against EPA. The firm’s website touts its commitment to providing legal representation pro bono “to assist those in need.” Here that means an Attorney General conveniently arguing to help powerful polluters defeat EPA’s effort to protect Americans from dangerous pollution.

Scott Pruitt has devoted his career as Attorney General to fighting EPA’s basic mission to protect human health and the environment. He has fought time after time to deny Americans the health benefits of EPA protections that save tens of thousands of lives, prevents hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks and reduce millions of tons of dangerous pollution. Beyond his litigation campaign of destruction, however, Mr. Pruitt holds extreme positions about EPA’s narrow authority and industry collaboration and even basic democracy.

Scott Pruitt’s own actions and views confirm that he is too extreme to lead the EPA. Mr. Pruitt does not deserve to be EPA Administrator. Senators should not confirm him.

About the Authors

John Walke

Director, Clean Air Project, Climate & Clean Air program

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