Scott Pruitt probably can’t wait for this week to be over. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency has had the roughest stretch yet of his controversial tenure, as several new scandals have broken over the past days, intensifying the accusations against him of corruption and taxpayer waste and causing widespread speculation that he would be fired. “Any administration but this one would have discharged him long ago,” William K. Reilly, an EPA administrator under President George Bush, told The New York Times. Even White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly wants Pruitt gone.
President Donald Trump is usually trigger-happy when it comes to firing Cabinet members. But his relationship with Pruitt is special. “Pruitt owes his good standing with the president primarily to his success in implementing the Trump administration’s environmental agenda,” the Daily Beast reported. According to Politico, a “White House aide noted ... that Trump was pleased with Pruitt’s efforts to roll back environmental regulations at the EPA.” Trump himself seemed to confirm as much on Thursday. As he boarded a plane to coal country, he was asked if he still had confidence in Pruitt. “I do, I do,” he replied. Later, in a gaggle with reporters on the plane, he said of Pruitt, “I think he’s done a fantastic job. I think he’s done an incredible job. He’s been very courageous. It hasn’t been easy, but I think he’s done a fantastic job.”
Pruitt and his allies claim these successes are the real reason for all this negative media attention. “Scott Pruitt Is Trump’s Biggest Asset,” read a Thursday headline at the Federalist. “That’s Why The Left Wants Him Gone.” A Washington Examiner column defending Pruitt said he was responsible for Trump’s “most significant policy achievements.” A columnist for The Hill wrote that Pruitt is “perhaps the most effective member of Trump’s Cabinet when it comes to actually translating rhetoric into reality.” On Friday, Trump reiterated his confidence in Pruitt:
But how “effective” has Scott Pruitt been? There’s no question he’s been prolific. According to The New Yorker, his agency has proposed repealing or delaying more than 30 environmental regulations since Trump’s inauguration. Those include high-profile proposals to undo Obama-era regulations to prevent climate change, air pollution, and drinking water contamination. Pruitt spearheaded Trump’s campaign to withdraw from the Paris agreement to fight global warming. Pruitt also started the process of ensuring air pollution science can’t be used at EPA, which if fully implemented could have lasting consequences on public health.
The key word, however, is “if.” At the moment, most of Pruitt’s actions are in the proposal stage, and many are years away from being finalized. Several have been halted or overturned by the courts. Pruitt’s legal skills and persistence should not be underestimated, though: As Oklahoma’s attorney general, he made his reputation by suing President Barack Obama’s EPA more than a dozen times. But so far, Pruitt’s biggest achievement is that he appears successful. That explains his good standing with Trump, who values appearances more than anything else.
Last June, in the White House Rose Garden, Trump announced that he would fulfill one of his main campaign promises: withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement. Before that day, it was unclear if Trump would really do it; many in his inner circle opposed the idea. Ultimately, however, it was Pruitt who convinced Trump to follow through. Pruitt’s most high-profile moment as EPA administrator thus came as he stood in front of dozens of news cameras that day, with Trump standing behind him. “Other nations talk a good game,” Pruitt said. “We lead with action, not words.”
And yet, nearly a year after that press conference, the U.S. is still part of the Paris agreement—and, according to its terms, can’t leave until at least November 5, 2020. Withdrawal from the accord, at this point, is merely a rhetorical win—but Pruitt’s allies claim this proves his effectiveness. The Hill column defending Pruitt on Thursday said Trump has already “drained the swamp” with “decisions like the one he made to remove the United States from the unfair and ineffective Paris climate accord.” The Federalist article also noted that Pruitt “shepherded the U.S. departure from the uneven and horribly negotiated Paris climate accord.”
Other high-profile Pruitt actions include his repeal of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, but that regulation was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 and is still winding its way through the courts. So the CPP was never implemented. And in order to legally repeal it, Pruitt must create another greenhouse gas regulation to replace it—a process that is underway but that will take years and inevitably face its own legal challenges.
At least ten of Pruitt’s intended regulatory rollbacks, in fact, are on hold due to lawsuits, according to the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center, a group run out of New York University Law School. “Most of Pruitt’s actions can be categorized as hastily reversing course on regulations/rules—without properly showing why and properly seeking public input—or flat out ignoring the law,” the group’s communication director Chris Moyer wrote in an email. “Neither count as accomplishments or successes, especially since Pruitt’s actions have led to challenges in court that remain in limbo.”
Several of Pruitt’s actions have been overturned by federal judges. The nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice notes that in March, courts ruled that Pruitt illegally delayed a pesticide exposure rule and a rule limiting emissions of formaldehyde. Pruitt’s EPA was also found to have broken the law when it missed a deadline implementing ozone pollution regulations. Pruitt’s EPA tried to take six years to review a 17-year-old lead paint regulation; a federal court gave them 90 days. Judges have also denied attempts to suspend methane and smog regulations on oil and gas wells, to roll back mercury pollution rules, and to reduce renewable fuels requirements.
There are ways in which Pruitt has been effective administratively, particularly when it comes to restructuring the way science is used at the EPA. In October, he banned scientists who have received EPA grants from advising him on environmental policy, and replaced many scientists on his advisory board with representatives from industry and red-state governments. Pruitt is also in the process of banning the EPA from using the main body of research showing air pollution causes premature deaths. When that happens, it will become legally easier for Pruitt to weaken air pollution regulations.
But Pruitt’s allies have also given him credit for accomplishments that don’t belong to him. The Federalist article for example, said Pruitt “awarded $100 million to upgrade drinking water in Flint, Michigan, and began an effort to eradicate lead poisoning from drinking water.” But that $100 million was a product of the Obama administration and approved by Congress in 2016. Pruitt did declare a “war on lead” in January, but as E&E News reported a month later, the main EPA career staffers who work on lead have no idea what’s happening with it. At the same time, “EPA has proposed cuts to multiple lead-related programs,” the report said.
“Governing by press release”—that’s how David Hayes, Environmental Impact Center’s executive director, described Pruitt’s strategy in an email. He likely intended it as a negative. But in Trump’s world, the press release—or the television appearance, or the tweet—is everything. The positive glow of a press release, however, only lasts so long. If Pruitt continues to lose court battles over his regulatory actions, he also stands to lose Trump’s support. After all, there’s nothing Trump hates more than losing court battles.
Lawsuits are still brewing over Pruitt’s delay of an Obama-era clean water rule, his repeal of vehicle emissions standards, and his decision to allow the continued use of the controversial pesticide chlorpyrifos. Environmentalists and other opponents of Pruitt shouldn’t assume he will lose these challenges. He’s not only indefatigable and experienced in litigation, but has help: “Mr. Pruitt has outsourced crucial work to a network of lawyers, lobbyists and other allies, especially Republican state attorneys general, a network he worked with closely as the head of the Republican Attorneys General Association,” according to the Times.
Pruitt’s reported political ambitions—to become the next U.S. attorney general, or even president—indicate he fully intends to follow through on his deregulatory agenda. He should not be underestimated. To date, though, most of his alleged accomplishments are hollow or incomplete. He has started many battles, but few have been decisive. The question is whether Trump will let him keep fighting.