Citing “the unrelenting attacks” from the public and media on him and his family, Scott Pruitt has resigned from his position as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, after serving as Trump’s appointee for nearly 17 months. Pruitt’s resignation comes amidst a litany of ethics scandals that have mired the federal agency in conflict since the day he was confirmed.
Pruitt, who has seen unending controversy since he took office, reshaped the EPA drastically as it marched toward its publicly-stated goal of cutting the number of EPA employees to its lowest levels since the Raegan administration. An unflinching proponent of Trump’s deregulatory agenda, Pruitt has succeeded in lessening the authority of the agency in favor of industry. The EPA he now leaves behind is hardly recognizable from the agency the Trump administration inherited from President Obama.
Job duties will be assumed by the EPA’s deputy administrator Andrew Wheeler, who will serve as acting head administrator until a replacement candidate is identified by Trump and approved in Senate confirmation hearings.
The Scandals That Reshaped the EPA – and Not for the Better
The Pruitt-led EPA was never short on negative media attention due to a laundry list of public controversies, many of which were directly related to moves made by Pruitt himself. At his resignation, Pruitt faced 18 official investigations. During his time, Pruitt controversially:
- Lived in a reduced-rate $50/night apartment owned by an industry lobbyist,
- Tasked the EPA with finding his wife a job that paid at least $200,000,
- Spent $43,000 on a sound-proof phone booth for his office,
- Abused a Safe Drinking Water Act loophole to give 2 of his “closest” employees raises,
- Squandered tax-payer dollars for either private jet flights or first-class plane tickets, and for personal flights to Oklahoma, Italy, and Morocco,
- Kept “secret” calendars and schedules that hid controversial contacts and events, such as meetings with energy-industry lobbyists,
- Saw over 1,000 employees quit or get fired, bringing the EPA to its smallest workforce (14,000) since the Raegan administration (normally, the EPA employs around 17,000 – 18,000),
- Dismissed hundreds of scientific studies and claimed that Global Warming is “a hoax,” and
- Made no (or maybe even reversed) progress on banning carcinogenic substances and toxic chemicals as mandated by the revised 2016 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
The list, unfortunately, does not end there. In fact, it’s merely an introduction to the genuine ethical concerns associated with the Pruitt-led EPA. One of the agency’s most important duties, protecting American citizens from deadly toxins that need to be regulated, is mandated by the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which was updated during Obama’s presidency.
TSCA tasks the EPA with the assessment of harmful and known carcinogens that endanger the public; such carcinogens include, for example, lead, arsenic, formaldehyde, and asbestos. The EPA can then create regulations or bans as a result of their findings.
Pruitt’s administration weakened the TSCA to the point that in 2 years of federal review, the first 10 substances identified are still stymied in the review process, stuck in a seemingly endless loop of review and counter-review.
The former EPA administrator has left his fingerprints everywhere, and one can only hope that in time, with new and honest leadership, the regulatory agency can scrub them out and gain back some of its strength.
When will that time come? Unfortunately, it does not look to be any time soon. With Andrew Wheeler now assuming leadership duties at the EPA, the American public – in spite of its many requests for Pruitt to step down – should be poised for yet more unsettling policy moves given Wheeler’s background.
The EPA Gets a New Face: Who Is Andrew Wheeler?
“I have accepted the resignation of Scott Pruitt as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency…. Within the Agency [sic] Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this…. I have no doubt that Andy [Andrew Wheeler] will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda. We have made tremendous progress and the future of the EPA is very bright!”
To what “progress” Trump refers, it’s unclear. During Pruitt’s time as administrator, the EPA has accomplished next to nothing, save for the dismantling of dozens of public and environmental health regulations.
The “brightness” that Trump refers to is Andrew Wheeler, who will temporarily take over as the interim face of the EPA. Wheeler, 55, faced much scrutiny from Senate democrats during his confirmation hearings due to his associations with industry lobbyists. As a former employee of FaegreBD Consulting and Faegre Baker Daniels law firm, Wheeler’s former clients included Murray Energy, which refers to itself as “the largest coal-mining company in America.”
At his confirmation hearings, House Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) referred to Wheeler as “a former industry lobbyist who has worked on behalf of big polluters and climate change deniers.”
Pruitt, of course, was never known to be a “friend” of the environment either; in fact, while serving as Oklahoma’s Attorney General, he sued the EPA for its new climate change policies, such as regulatory action on greenhouse gas emissions. He dubbed himself “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”
With Pruitt Out, What’s in Store for the EPA?
Pruitt leaves behind a severely weakened EPA; an EPA that in a short, 17 months has been drastically – but hopefully not irreversibly – altered. Upon his leave, Pruitt hands the baton to a known industry-friendly, pro-coal lobbyist.
As for the ultimate source of all these controversial moves, people need not look further than the man who is pulling the strings: the 45th president of the United States – the leader of the free world and the person charged with the protection of all American citizens. For it is Donald Trump who appoints and names who will replace whom; and when it comes to the environment and the EPA, Trump has made it abundantly clear that protecting the people’s best interests is not something at the forefront of his mind.
Asked in an interview about the incoming acting administrator, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) perhaps said it best: “Now we have his deputy administrator coming in, and it’s not clear whether this person is committed to protecting the environment. That’s the real problem.”
With Wheeler assuming administrator duties, we could see a decline in outright scandals at the EPA, but it remains to be seen whether, policy-wise, Americans should simply brace themselves for yet more of the same.