Washington Watch: Pruitt Goes Down Under Weight of Scandals
In a sudden but not shocking development last week, EPA head Scott Pruitt finally succumbed to his serial ethical lapses.
The surprise—for any administration but the current regime in the White House—would have been that an official like Pruitt lasted as long as he did despite the raw and repeated nature of his misconduct. Misuse of public resources for personal and family purposes, transparently rewarding industry lobbyists for personal favors granted, flagrant excess in spending on personal travel, personal security, and office furnishings while slashing his own agency’s personnel and budget—the drumbeat of scandal seemed to have no end in sight.
Pruitt’s survival in office, prior to his sudden resignation last Thursday, came in large part because he was also aggressively implementing Trump’s anti-environmental agenda. Pruitt rejected scientific analysis of critical environmental problems, cut enforcement staff and budgets, and ripped through reversal of key environmental policy decisions by the previous administration—often without evidence or required legal process.
“Scott Pruitt’s departure is long overdue [and] a huge win for all those who suffer from poor air pollution and don’t have access to clean drinking water. Pruitt’s removal is just the first step in restoring a strong EPA that gets back to its mission to protect public health and our environment. Now every single decision made under Pruitt’s tainted leadership must be revisited – from his recent attack on science to dozens of policies that sell out our clean air and water,” said former EPA head and current League of Conservation Voters (LCV) board chair Carol Browner. “He turned the agency charged with protecting the environment and public health away from that important mission. Congress must ensure the next EPA Administrator is not another industry insider. The next administrator should look to work with the EPA professionals who have a long history of ensuring strong public health protections for the American people based on science and the law.”
Unfortunately, Pruitt’s immediate successor is precisely the kind of industry voice Browner warns against. At least on an interim basis, Pruitt’s recently confirmed deputy Andrew Wheeler takes over. Observers note that this replaces oil industry apologist Pruitt with former coal industry lobbyist Wheeler. From an environmental policy standpoint, there seems little value in the transition.
Wheeler is not just a former coal industry lobbyist, he is also a former chief of staff for Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, one of Congress’ loudest climate change deniers. He is known for being low-key, careful about legal process, and effective in his deregulatory agenda. In sum, he is just as ardent about gutting environmental protections as Pruitt, and probably more effective.
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) spokesperson Ana Unruh Cohen said, “Andrew Wheeler is equally unqualified to serve as the nation’s chief environmental steward. Like Pruitt, this veteran coal lobbyist has shown only disdain for the EPA’s vital mission to protect Americans’ health and our environment. Make no mistake: we’ll fight Wheeler’s pollution agenda with the same vigor as we did Pruitt’s.”
Congressional defenders of clean air and water, public health, and a livable planet have also announced that they will stand in the way of swift confirmation of any candidate for EPA Administrator who follows the anti-environment playbook of Trump, Pruitt, and Wheeler.
Conservationists in general will not forget that the larger scandal here is not the venality of one official—it’s the effort of the Trump Administration to systematically gut environmental protections that have taken almost a half-century to build up. That scandal is continuing—and so must our efforts to fight it.