Week 75: When the EPA Has Job Openings, the Oil Industry Polishes Its Resumes

Also, the EPA launches a pincer attack on smog standards, and Pruitt faces (yet another) investigation.

June 29, 2018

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


One month into his tenure at the EPA, Administrator Scott Pruitt realized he needed to fill a bunch of jobs. So where did Pruitt, the man tasked with protecting public health and regulating high-polluting industries, turn for candidates? To the leading oil industry organization, the American Petroleum Institute.

A new batch of FOIA emails reveals that in March 2017, an official at ConocoPhillips wrote to an EPA counterpart, “I understand that Administrator Pruitt met with the API executives last week and he made a plea for candidates to fill some of the regional director positions within the agency. One of our employees has expressed interest. He is polishing up his resume. Where does he need to send it?”

We already knew that Pruitt stocked his agency with employees and lobbyists from the very industries he’s supposed to be regulating, but the brazenness with which he did so is still shocking. It wasn’t as if Pruitt knew some very fine people, to borrow a Trumpian phrase, who just happened to work in the oil industry, and he wanted their expertise at the EPA. No, Pruitt showed up at an oil industry meeting and just begged executives to send candidates to work for him. It’s almost as if Pruitt regards working in the oil industry as one of the best qualifications for EPA employment.

“Is this sort of thing common in Washington?” you ask. Why no, no it’s not.

“It would be highly unusual to go to a specific industry to try to recruit,” Christine Todd Whitman, EPA administrator under George W. Bush, told BuzzFeed News. “They applied to us,” she said, “and then we sorted through them.”

No Costs, Just Benefits on Smog Standards

The federal government must review its smog standards every five years. The last cycle ended in 2015, when the Obama administration made the standards stricter, based on a mountain of evidence linking ground-level ozone, the primary contributor to smog, to a variety of serious health issues and even death.

The Trump administration is now attacking ozone limits from two directions. First, it has been dithering over implementation of the existing standards, constantly vacillating as to whether it will enforce the Obama-era rule as the law requires. This week, the administration opened its second front in the battle when the EPA began the review process for the next five-year cycle.

Stop Andrew Wheeler

We all know what Pruitt wants to do—weaken the smog protections to benefit high-polluting industries. But there are some very important legal constraints on him, most notably the fact that the EPA is legally prohibited from considering the standards’ costs. When deciding what is a safe limit for smog, Pruitt may only consider the science regarding the effect of ground-level ozone on human health. Just imagine the challenge that’s going to be for the most corrupt, evidence-averse administrator in EPA history.

The whole process typically takes years, of course. So maybe Scandalous Scott won’t be around to set these standards after all. Speaking of which…

Could Pruitt Be Fired for Firing People?

One of the problems with corruption and lying is that you have to pile more corruption and lying on top of your existing corruption and lying to cover your tracks. And so it is with Scott Pruitt. This week, sources told Politico that the U.S. Office of Special Counsel is investigating claims that Pruitt fired or transferred employees who questioned his overspending on security and other non-necessities. The OSC is apparently now interviewing the victims of Pruitt’s axe.

This could get very interesting, because the OSC has broad powers. It could take minor action, such as requiring Pruitt to rehire those fired—which might be more of a punishment for the employees than for Pruitt. But if the investigators find evidence of serious misconduct, the OSC can prosecute him, too.

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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