Former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has used his term to date as Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to roll back regulations covering air and water pollution, limit scientific input into his agency’s deliberations, and try to freeze former President Barack Obama’s signature climate initiative, the Clean Power Plan (CPP). It’s what he hasn’t done that has observers guessing.
The CPP mandates that the U.S. electric power sector—a primary market for its failing coal industry—achieve a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Mining lobbyists have characterized that requirement as a “war on coal”, and Pruitt has said the CPP is up for review.
But Greentech Media observes that Pruitt has so far sidestepped demands from conservative groups “to go beyond the CPP itself, and revoke the  EPA determination that greenhouse gas emissions are harmful to public health and safety. Known as the Endangerment Finding, the ruling is the basis for the agency’s current greenhouse gas restrictions and arguably obligates the EPA to take further action to reduce these emissions.”
There’s a method to Pruitt’s demurral, argues Josiah Neeley, energy director for the R Street Institute, a free market think tank in Washington, DC. “A direct attack on the Endangerment Finding would be a likely loser,” he writes.
“To repeal the finding, the agency would have to go through ‘notice and comment,’” he observes, giving the public and subject experts an opportunity to critique the proposed action. The EPA “must then provide a reasonable response to these critiques in formulating its final decision.”
Given the overwhelming scientific consensus that rising levels of human-generated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are the primary factor destabilizing the climate, and the support of the majority of Americans for the Paris Climate agreement, that might prove difficult to do.
“What’s more,” Neeley writes, “any decision the EPA makes on the matter is certain to end up in court. And judges are unlikely to side against the weight of scientific opinion on the matter.” Instead, Pruitt’s agency is pursuing the obscure legal argument that the U.S. Clean Air Act pre-empts the Clean Power Plan.
Meanwhile, more than a dozen state attorneys general are pushing back against Pruitt’s advice that they are free to ignore mandates legally issued under the CPP, Reuters reports.
Pruitt’s guidance had said that while the initiative is under review by the administration and under challenge by 27 GOP-governed states before the U.S. Court of Appeals, “states and other interested parties have neither been required nor expected to work towards meeting the compliance dates” for mandates under the plan.
But attorneys general for 14 Democratic states, along with officials from six cities and counties, called Pruitt’s “unsolicited” advice “premature and legally incorrect,” Reuters says, “because the Clean Power Plan enacted under former President Barack Obama remains on the books despite the Trump administration’s plans to unravel it.”
“Scott Pruitt cannot simply wish away the facts by giving governors bad legal advice,” declared New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, one of the parties to the statement.
Pruitt has drawn sharp attacks from environmental groups for his close ties to fossil interests while he was Oklahoma’s attorney general. But despite his reluctance to go after the Endangerment Finding, his success in driving a regulation-smashing agenda during his brief term at EPA has inspired some observers to suggest he has ambitions beyond a seat in the Trump cabinet. Ironically, that political parlour talk—with implications for his longevity at EPA should he declare for a Senate seat in 2020—could circle back to have an impact on his deregulatory agenda.
“You have to always factor in, ‘How long is Scott Pruitt going to stay there?'” one unnamed but well-connected fossil lobbyist told E&E News [subs req’d]. Pruitt himself answered that question in an interview with his hometown paper, The Oklahoman, last month: “I’ll do it as long as the Lord calls me to and as long as the president wants me to do it.”