Week 63: Scott Pruitt Even Sleeps Unethically

While Pruitt’s ethical lapses threaten to destroy the EPA, he rolls back clean car standards and panders to oil refiners.

April 06, 2018

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

Just Like a Bunch of Used-Car Salesmen

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced on Monday a plan to repeal standards requiring cars and light trucks to average at least 50 miles per gallon by 2025. Actually, to call Pruitt’s announcement a “plan” is too generous. He said only that he would throw out the existing rules, offering no thoughts on how to replace them, which he is required to do.

“Obama’s EPA cut the Midterm Evaluation process short with politically charged expediency, made assumptions about the standards that didn’t comport with reality, and set the standards too high,” said Pruitt.

Hang on a second. If Pruitt is saying the EPA has no idea what the appropriate miles per gallon standard should be, how could he already have concluded that it is currently too high? Pruitt is simply listening to complaints from the auto industry without doing his due diligence on the fuel efficiency standards. In other words, Pruitt has cut the process short with politically charged expediency.

You already know what an unethical hack Pruitt is. So let’s put his transgressions aside (for now) and reserve a little outrage for the automakers who handled this situation with the utmost sleaze.

The big carmakers agreed in 2009 to hike fuel efficiency standards. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder with President Obama in the Rose Garden, soaking up the positive publicity. Then in 2012 they agreed to a second round of improvements—the current standards. But the moment the cameras turned off, the manufacturers began undermining the rules they had just agreed to. They claimed that the standards they so proudly endorsed were suddenly a dangerous threat to our economy.

Don’t believe it. Automakers always claim that safety or efficiency regulations are going to hurt consumers and cost jobs. And they’ve always been wrong.

There are a couple of other wrinkles to this story. The Obama-era rules were part of a grand bargain with the state of California, which agreed to adopt the federal standards rather than exercise its right to enact its own, more stringent fuel efficiency rules. But now the federal government has violated the agreement, and the Golden State says it will not lower its standards to mirror whatever Pruitt tries to adopt.

So, either the federal government must attempt to withdraw California’s longstanding right to set its own standards, leading to prolonged litigation, or automakers will have to comply with two entirely different sets of clean car rules. That’s a big deal, because 12 states plus the District of Columbia follow California’s rules. Together, those states represent more than one-third of the total U.S. vehicle market. Have fun with that, carmakers.

Also, the EPA reportedly invited only Fox News to bring television cameras into the announcement, in a likely attempt to prevent other television networks from attending. (Fox News foiled the plan by alerting the other networks.) A slew of other reporters on the EPA beat didn’t receive invitations either, probably because they would have asked Pruitt a bunch of uncomfortable questions. To wit . . .

Demand real leadership at the EPA

Pick a Scandal

Each new day brings a new revelation about how Pruitt is wasting taxpayer dollars. We already knew about his first-class travel, fancy hotels stays, and the $43,000 soundproof booth he installed in his office so his own staffers couldn’t follow his machinations. Now his housing is making headlines.

News emerged late last week that in 2017 Pruitt rented a room in a D.C. townhouse that is partly owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist whose firm conducts business with the EPA. Agency communications staff insist the room was rented at market rates, but I challenge you to find a room in a swanky Capitol Hill neighborhood that’s available for $50 per night and lets you pay only for the nights you are there. To make matters worse, according to reports, the townhouse owners have donated to Pruitt’s political campaigns in the past, and Republican lawmakers held fundraisers in the townhouse while Pruitt was living there.

Pause for a breath. Another scandal.

In March, Pruitt asked the White House for permission to give massive raises to two aides who had worked with him previously in Oklahoma. When White House officials refused, Pruitt basically ignored them. Without changing their duties, Pruitt simply reclassified the two staffers through a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act—normally used for the hiring of technical specialists—to push through the raises, pay increases of up to 52 percent. One of the staffers, a relative newbie to a job of this stature, is already making more than her predecessor, who worked for five years in the Obama administration.

Are you ready for more? Because there is more.

Rumors have circulated for months that President Trump might fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replace him with Pruitt. It’s possible, although not legally certain, that Trump could install Pruitt without Senate confirmation. But it has become clear over the past few days that the source of the Pruitt-for-attorney-general rumors is none other than Pruitt himself. Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, reportedly is peeved that Pruitt has launched this whispering campaign, and Kelly may have told colleagues he wants Pruitt out.

And here’s the cherry on top of Pruitt’s scandal sundae. The administrator often defends his shady dealings by claiming that career officials have reviewed and approved his actions. But, on Thursday, EPA ethics officials reported that Pruitt didn’t tell them the full story about his townhouse rental. In addition, the New York Times reports that EPA officials who have questioned Pruitt’s spending habits and management decisions have been demoted, reassigned, or requested new jobs. In other words, when Pruitt asks career officials for approval of his corruption, he tells them half-truths while tacitly threatening to destroy their careers.

Oh what a tangled, soot-covered web you have woven, Mr. Pruitt.

A Waive of Pruitt’s Hand

Speaking of Pruitt’s creative use of the law, he’s now been caught doing a huge favor for a huge oil company. The EPA has the power to waive certain biofuels regulations under hardship conditions—that is, when the standards threaten to bankrupt a refiner. Historically, the agency has used the waiver to help small companies in serious danger of insolvency, but that’s not how Pruitt is using it. Reuters this week revealed that Pruitt bestowed the waiver upon Andeavor, one of the nation’s largest refiners. Andeavor has a market capitalization of more than $16 billion, it earned $1.5 billion last year, and its stock is up about 36 percent over the past 12 months. It’s not exactly a hardship case.

Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley called the waiver a “massive handout” and said it “may be illegal.”

The waivers are typically secret, which I assume is Pruitt’s favorite kind of waiver. Perhaps he grants them from inside his soundproof booth.

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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