Week 56: Pruitt’s Travel Is a First-Class Waste of Money

The Trump administration has the money to fly Scott Pruitt first class, but not enough for renewable energy or climate change research?

February 16, 2018

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

Pruitt Doesn’t Travel Coach

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Inspector General’s Office launched an inquiry into Administrator Scott Pruitt’s travel expenses back in August, so it’s going to love this story: According to a report this week in the Washington Post, Pruitt has been zipping around the globe in first-class seats and spending his nights in upscale hotels. In just a couple of weeks in June, Pruitt and his top aides racked up at least $90,000 in travel expenses. (That figure does not include the travel costs for Pruitt’s 24-hour security detail.)

Asked about the bills, an EPA spokesperson said, “He’s trying to further positive environmental outcomes.”

Is it unprecedented, you ask? Why, yes . . . yes it is. Past administrators who tried to further positive environmental outcomes have flown economy, along with their aides, since government air travel rules typically require people to fly in coach. But Pruitt reportedly has a blanket waiver because of security concerns. Even by the Carrollian standards of the Trump era, this logic is beyond ludicrous. The only thing separating first class from economy—especially in planes flying along the East Coast, Pruitt’s primary travel corridor—is a curtain that is left open for much of the flight. In addition, Pruitt is traveling with a bodyguard, which surely affords him exponentially greater security than a flight attendant sternly reminding a would-be threat to return to his seat in coach.

Pruitt was supposed to be in New Hampshire this week to tour a Superfund site. I can only assume he was carried there in a jewel-encrusted, solid-gold palanquin and spent the night in a luxury hotel. Because, you know . . . security.

Dead Batteries

The Trump administration released its 2019 budget proposal this week. The budget is basically a joke; Congress struck a budget deal days before Trump’s budget came out. But as jokes go, it’s not very funny.

The budget proposes to cut the funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy from more than $2 billion to less than $700 million, a decrease of more than 65 percent. Undersecretary of Energy Mark Menezes defended the proposal, arguing that projects like large-scale batteries don’t need any more research dollars. “We don't need to continue to fund those programs,” he said.

There are a couple of obvious flaws in this argument. First, large-scale batteries are still in their infancy, and the R&D isn’t even close to complete. Just ask Elon Musk whether we’re all done researching battery technology for electric cars.

Here’s the other problem with Menezes’s argument that batteries are too mature a technology to need federal research funding: While the administration is trying to cut renewable energy dollars, it’s increasing funding for fossil fuel research. If maturity is the yardstick by which we measure the need for research dollars, why would fossil fuels—a 150-year-old technology—need funding?

Space Cadets

In addition to slashing renewable energy, the Trump budget unsurprisingly proposes cuts to climate change research, including support for the satellites that monitor changes to our planet’s climate, atmosphere, and oceans. (The phrase “climate change” appears only once in the budget—in a proposal to cut a climate change research program.) These satellite programs do far more than climate change monitoring; they are crucial in tracking algal blooms and many other potentially serious environmental challenges.

“We can’t do everything, and as always, we’ve had to make hard choices,” said NASA’s acting administrator in defense of the budget. I somehow doubt this choice was all that hard for the Trump administration.

It’s also worth asking who in the administration is making these hard choices about research funding. Trump still hasn’t appointed a science adviser, a role typically held by a top-flight scientist who tells the president how his decisions will affect science and technology for decades to come. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has been directionless for more than a year. And Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, is probably one of the least qualified people in American government to make science policy decisions. Mulvaney once questioned the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly, endorsing a piece of left-field research because it fit his view that the government shouldn’t pay for medical research.

When it comes to scientific research, the administration badly needs a grown-up in the room.

Methane? What Methane?

The Bureau of Land Management released a “revision” to the Obama-era rule limiting methane emissions from oil and gas production sites on public land this week. By any standard, however, it’s more a rescission than a revision. Revision, rescission, let’s call the whole thing off.

The new rule, for example, no longer requires companies to create a plan to minimize methane released into the atmosphere. It’s not only terrible environmental policy—methane is a powerful greenhouse gas—but also poor financial management. The amount of methane lost on federal lands is worth $330 million annually. These leaks and intentional emissions are enough to power a whopping five million homes.

The new rule will surely be challenged in court, where the Trump administration will have to explain to a judge why it wants to waste taxpayer money and energy while also polluting the atmosphere. Maybe they should just say it’s for Scott Pruitt’s personal security.

Trump Watch: NRDC tracks the Trump administration’s assaults on the environment

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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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