The Huffington Post gained access to an internal Environmental Protection Agency email last month, calling on staff members to downplay the risks from climate change. Now, EPA chief Scott Pruitt is under fire for his cozy relationship with industry lobbyists. But none of this should come as news – Pruitt has been working alongside fossil fuel industry insiders and fighting against environmental regulations for years.
Under the leadership of Pruitt, Trump’s EPA has portrayed itself as taking a more cautious approach to the science of climate change than the last administration, by taking into account what it claims is legitimate uncertainty surrounding the science of climate change.
The email provides talking points that Pruitt has become well known for. In one example, it states:
“Human activity impacts our changing climate in some manner. The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact, and what to do about it, are subject to continuing debate and dialogue.”
Another argues that “while there has been extensive research and a host of published reports on climate change, clear gaps remain including our understanding of the role of human activity and what we can do about it.”
Agency spokeswoman Liz Bowman defended the agency, saying “This is not an official memo; this is simply an email among colleagues, based on information developed by someone in our office…Implying we are telling people to downplay climate change is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.”
But can there really be any question that Pruitt and Trump’s EPA have actively worked to downplay climate change and cut regulations at every opportunity? The new email revelations fit with the Trump EPA’s consistent track record of deregulation at every turn and minimizing climate risks, as well as with Pruitt’s own history of prioritizing the needs of industry insiders over the environment he is now in charge of protecting.
First of all, there is little room for scientific debate over the threat posed by climate change and the role industrial society has played in causing it. You can choose to use a variety of metrics to gauge the opinions of scientists, but any serious analysis will show that the vast majority agree on the causes and potential solutions. According to Texas A&M climate scientist Andrew Dessler, “There is uncertainty in climate science, but the uncertainty spans the range of climate change being somewhat serious to extremely serious…and what we can do about it is quite clear: to stabilize the climate, we need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to near zero.”
Those who promote the idea of climate science as fundamentally unsettled almost always have an interest in minimizing regulations and making life easier for industrial interests. Pruitt’s EPA has delayed ozone air-pollution rules, revoked the Clean Water Rule protecting streams and rivers, undermined regulations on mercury pollution from power plants, and proposed a budget that cut more than a third of his own agency’s funding – and all of this was in the first several months of the administration alone. An up to date list would also include the weakening of the Clean Air Act, the repeal of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, and the dismantling of a wide range of other regulations. Just last week, the agency announced plans to roll back auto emissions standards, in a move that has been praised by automakers.
“I do think that the administration has been aggressively deregulatory across the board, across agencies. But the EPA stands out even in that crowd,” said Georgetown University law professor and former EPA associate administrator Lisa Heinzerling. She added that Pruitt’s “decisions appear to move all in one direction. He’s not just limiting himself to one program. Across the agency, he appears to be acting in a uniformly deregulatory way.”
While the administration has routinely used economic and job-creation rationalizations to explain away this consistently deregulatory agenda, this is not the EPA’s job. The agency’s mandate is to “protect human health and the environment,” according to their own website. Few if any of the EPA’s moves under Pruitt could be said to fulfill this mandate.
And it’s not hard to understand what has happened behind the scenes. Pruitt repeatedly sued the EPA over pollution regulations as Oklahoma attorney general, before being put in charge of an agency tasked with enforcing those same regulations. In February of 2017, thousands of emails revealed that Pruitt had worked closely with the industry figures during his time in that office, even allowing his letterhead to be used in a complaint filed by one energy firm. The emails also show that Pruitt collaborated with the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec), a network of conservatives and industry lobbyists that has fought to challenge climate science and limit regulation.
Pruitt has finally come under serious scrutiny for his relationship to the fossil fuels industry, facing criticism for a wide range of revelations in the last week. For one, Pruitt rented a Washington D.C. condo last summer from the spouse of an industry lobbyist, for $50 a night – an unbelievably low price for the area. The condo was also used to host GOP fundraisers.
In March of last year, the EPA approved an extension of a natural gas pipeline for a company represented by the firm of the condo owner’s husband. The White House is investigating the matter, and speculation that Pruitt may lose his job has been widespread. Trump has voiced support for Pruitt, but also promised to “take a look” at the situation. It’s still uncertain whether Pruitt will face any consequences. But the reality is that his connections to the fossil fuel industry, along with his pro-industry agenda, have long compromised his ability to run an agency tasked with protecting the environment.