Scott Pruitt Steps Down as EPA Administrator
Scott Pruitt, controversial administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), resigned on Jul. 5 after controversy surrounding his tenure threatened to engulf the agency. The missteps that led to his departure, however, were less related to his often critically eyed rollback of former President Barack Obama’s signature clean air and water legislation than to the vast sums he spent on travel and personal security and his secretive approach to running the agency.
In the end, Pruitt’s own staff no longer supported him, and the negative headlines his actions generated helped keep the agency in a permanent negative spotlight. Acknowledging Pruitt's resignation on Twitter, President Donald Trump announced the appointment of the EPA’s new deputy administrator Andrew Wheeler as acting head. Like his predecessor, Wheeler is known as a lobbyist for the energy industry, in particular coal.
The EPA currently faces 13 federal inquiries into its former chief’s spending and management practices, personal ethics and policy decisions. Among other things, investigators are reviewing reports that Pruitt retaliated against aides who questioned him and used federal employees to perform personal errands. Inquiries into his first-class travel, the installation of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office and his cut-rate rental of a condominium from the wife of a prominent energy lobbyist with business before the EPA are in progress.
Pruitt additionally has come under fire in the US Congress for a $40,000 trip to Morocco, during which he promoted US natural gas exports – which do not fall under the EPA’s jurisdiction. The agency’s inspector general is investigating the officeholder’s use of a provision of a clean drinking water law to hire ex-lobbyists and give raises to political aides.
Just before Pruitt’s resignation was announced, the CNN television network alleged that the EPA maintained secret calendars to hide his meetings with industry executives, and the newspaper New York Times reported that the agency had dismissed a senior scheduler who questioned the retroactive deletion of sensitive meetings from the administrator’s calendar.
During his 18-month tenure, Pruitt was widely criticized for downplaying the role of science within the EPA, barring advisors with ties to the research community while appointing staff members with ties to the industries the agency was charged with regulating. According to reports, 700 employees resigned during his first year in office.
The Trump appointee was extremely unpopular with green groups. One of Pruitt’s first moves after taking office in January 2017 was to remove all references to climate change from the EPA’s website. In a much-publicized public statement, he asserted also that carbon emissions were not a primary contributor to global warming. Pruitt was generally regarded as a principal voice urging the US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.
During his relatively short term, the administrator also proposed laxer chemical rules for chemical plants and withdrew the environmental watchdog’s plans for a ban on chlorpyrifos, the insecticide active ingredient sometimes linked to developmental problems in children. Critics contended that the withdrawal was a favor to Dow Chemical, which had lobbied against it.
Many of the EPA’s most controversial actions under Pruitt’s leadership were inactions, some commentators noted. With challenges to his efforts to overturn Obama era legislation – some of which had not been approved by Congress – occupying the courts, the agency simply decided not to enforce the rules, they said.
Despite their dislike of Pruitt, NGOs are not encouraged that the situation will improve if Andrew Wheeler’s appointment becomes permanent. Critics said they would expect the environmental rollback to continue under a Wheeler administration, while the likely absence of personal scandals could mean that the agency’s actions will be less reported.
“Scott Pruitt will go down in history as a disgrace to the office of EPA administrator,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). But even with Pruitt gone, he said, “our resistance to all he stood for will continue undiminished.”