Week 36: Scott Pruitt Can’t Hear You Anymore (Not That He Was Listening)

The EPA chief’s new $25,000 soundproof booth, Ryan Zinke hates solar panels, and the Arctic refuge is in danger yet again.

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

But Is It Leakproof?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is spending nearly $25,000 to build a soundproof booth in the office of its administrator, Scott Pruitt. One of two things is happening: either Pruitt has something to hide, or he’s preparing to win Ben Stein’s money.

Joking aside, there are two deeply disturbing elements to this story. First, Pruitt is the first EPA administrator to literally insulate himself from his employees. The booth is an extension of Pruitt’s unprecedented demand for round-the-clock personal security, with at least one Trump official reporting that the perceived threats to the administrator came from his own staffers.

Why has the EPA chief failed so miserably at winning over his employees? I concede that Pruitt faces a significant morale challenge—he was, after all, hired to destroy everything his staff has worked for. But the same is true of many other Trump appointees, and they do not fear for their lives or conduct business from within a soundproof chamber.

The larger problem with Pruitt’s booth: Why is the EPA’s business a secret? To be fair, Pruitt’s is not the first soundproof booth in the federal government. Its manufacturer, Acoustical Solutions, has built similar structures for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, the State Department, and the Treasury. But the need for secrecy in those agencies is obvious. They have enemies, their work involves national security, and a data breach could be very profitable for a criminal group. None of those things are true for the EPA. The protection of the environment and public health could and should be conducted with complete transparency.

What’s more, there’s already a secure communications area within the agency. But that’s not enough for Pruitt, who demands soundproofing in his own office. Perhaps he has so many secret conversations that he doesn’t have time to travel back and forth between them.

In related news, EPA employees attended a one-hour course last week on how to prevent leaks to the press. The staffers promptly leaked the associated memos and slide shows to any reporter who would stand still long enough to take them.

Considered together, these stories paint a picture of a badly dysfunctional workplace—one without trust, or even basic respect, between the employees and the leadership. While the boss builds a fortress of silence to ensure no one knows what he’s going to do next (except for the industries he’s supposed to be regulating), the rank and file have made a competition out of immediately disclosing to the media what small scraps of information they can gather.

If Donald Trump were running the government like one of his businesses, as he promised, he would fire Pruitt for turning the EPA into a circus.

On second thought, maybe that is exactly what Trump’s businesses are like.

Booth Buddies

Pruitt had better hope that his booth is also opaque, so that no one can see who’s in there with him or what phone numbers he’s dialing. After receiving Pruitt’s meeting schedule, the Washington Post reported that the EPA chief “has met regularly with corporate executives from the automobile, mining, and fossil fuel industries—in several instances shortly before making decisions favorable to those interest groups.”

For example, just before revoking the Obama administration’s decision to protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay from an ecologically disastrous mining operation, Pruitt met with the company seeking to open the mine. After meeting with a truck body manufacturer, Pruitt announced he would reconsider emissions standards for trucks. You don’t need go-go-gadget ears to figure out what was said in those conversations. Pruitt doesn’t need a soundproof booth—he needs better judgment.

Drilling Like It’s 1999

In an attempt to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, Senate Republicans are considering using the budget reconciliation process to bypass a Democratic filibuster.

This would be at least the second time Republicans have used budget reconciliation to drill ANWR. The 104th Congress, led by Senator Strom Thurmond and Representative Newt Gingrich, tried in the 1990s, but President Clinton issued a veto and included ANWR on his list of 82 reasons for rejecting the bill.

Drilling in ANWR would be a tragedy. A spill, which is almost inevitable, would create major disruptions in a nearly pristine Arctic ecosystem. The area includes the primary denning site for polar bears, calving grounds for porcupine caribou, habitat for several marine mammals such as Pacific walrus, and the migration routes for bowhead whales and up to 200 bird species.

Unfortunately, we don’t currently have a conservation-minded president to protect the refuge. Perhaps legislative saviors exist among the Republican Senate caucus, though. Senators John McCain and Susan Collins, who helped kill the attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, have both opposed ANWR drilling in the past. However, Lisa Murkowski, another “no” on health care, is a certain “yes” on ANWR drilling. She is strongly in favor of exploiting her state’s wilderness for oil.

There is also a slight possibility that oil companies themselves won’t be interested. Oil prices are low, and companies have already canceled high-cost extraction projects up north like tar sands mines in Alberta. If the major producers don’t forecast a significant rise in oil prices, they may hold off on bids to drill in the unpredictable and remote Alaskan wilderness.

Is He Afraid of a Sunshine Spill?

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said on Tuesday that solar farms aren’t the best use of federal lands. The comment put a scare into solar developers who are participating in a program launched in 2010 to bring renewable energy production to land managed by the Department of the Interior.

Zinke’s comment brings into sharp relief his view of land management: “no” to clean solar panels, but “yes, absolutely, definitely” to filthy oil drilling and coal mining. The administration certainly has a perverse view of progress.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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