History May Tell How Long Pruitt Will Last at EPA

Pruitt’s fate might be foretold by another dark era in EPA history, one with surreal parallels in the modern day.

As allegations of corruption pile atop EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, one of the maddening realities of American political life in the Trump era has come front and center. Pruitt may yet survive the tide of allegations he faces, protected by a hyper-partisan Congress. Never mind that the administrator’s multiplying ethical lapses have trended toward the absurd, including recently revealed attempts to leverage his office and staff to land a Chick-fil-A job for his wife, house hunt and even buy a used hotel mattress.

In fact, Trump recently reiterated his support for Pruitt, who has played the role of loyal wingman to a president intent out carrying out a deregulatory environmental agenda.

Yet, as anyone who’s watched old war movies featuring aerial combat knows, often enough the wing man takes the hit. Now is a good time to take a closer look at how long Pruitt may remain aloft as EPA administrator.

Pruitt’s fate might be foretold by another dark era in EPA history, one with surreal parallels in the modern day. In 1981, newly elected President Ronald Reagan installed as EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch Buford, the late mother of Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch.

Gorsuch proceeded to decimate the EPA, cutting its funding by a quarter and staff by 20%. She sought to gut the Superfund program for hazardous waste cleanup, and weaken the Clean Air Act. Similarly, Pruitt cut 700 EPA staffers in his first year, aimed to cut the agency’s budget by 30% and has nullified the Clean Power Plan, itself rooted in the Clean Air Act.

Yet, it’s the parallel ethical quagmires of the two administrators that really stand out.

During her administration, Gorsuch repeatedly ignored warnings that one of her top aides, an attorney, had represented clients impacted by the agency. And Rita Lavalle, Gorsuch’s assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, was fired by President Regan for conflicts of interest. Lavelle later served jail time after a federal court found her guilty of perjury.

After two years of turmoil and little evidence that she could keep her EPA house in order, Gorsuch finally resigned in 1983. Reagan picked William Ruckelshaus, the Agency’s first administrator, to return to lead the EPA and restore its credibility.

The history of Gorsuch is, at a minimum, instructive in that it shows that deposing a scandal-tarred administrator can in fact happen. It may just take time.

And there are signs that Republican support for Pruitt is cracking, including that of longtime supporter Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, while recent resignations of Pruitt aides have made it clear that not all is well within the organization. Given the array of investigative salvos into Pruitt’s alleged corruption by the EPA Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office and the White House office of Management, it’s none too early to look at the direction in which Pruitt’s likely replacement would take the agency.

Which brings the focus to Deputy EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Like Pruitt, who sued the EPA 14 times on behalf of fossil fuel interests, Wheeler’s industry-friendly bona fides are clear. His last job was as an energy industry lobbyist at law firm Faegre Baker Daniels, where a marquee client was Murray Energy. Robert Murray, chief executive of his namesake coal company, donated generously to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and, once Trump assumed office, supplied the President with a four-page “action plan” for undoing Obama-era mining regulations.

Wheeler was on hand when Murray presented his plan to bail out uneconomic coal and gas-fired power generators to Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Wheeler himself has been critical of climate science.

Yet, despite Wheeler’s general philosophical alignment with Pruitt, a Wheeler-led EPA could prove to be a significantly less chaotic, more genial place that it has been of late. Wheeler is a Capitol Hill veteran who worked for 12 years as a legislative aide, including under Inhofe. He also spent four years at the EPA under Republican and Democratic administrations, and has a reputation for a refined bedside manner.

“If Wheeler slows down a bit and relies more on career staff, he’s likely to be more effective than Pruitt is at this point in getting some regulatory change in place,” says Cary Coglianese, Director of the Penn Program on Regulation at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

“By moving very quickly across so many different fronts and not full staffing out, Pruitt’s EPA has had certain of its actions struck down in court.” Those failures include efforts to undo regulations related to pesticides and lead paint, and to delay limits on methane emissions.

Wheeler would likely continue Pruitt’s “back to basics” strategy, prioritizing cleanup of Superfund sites, which were a focus of his work during his first stint at the EPA. Energy-related environmental priorities like methane emission limits and coal ash safeguards would continue to fall to the wayside.

Whether President Trump would exercise strategic foresight in selecting a replacement for Pruitt is anyone’s guess, and a permanent Wheeler ascension wouldn’t be automatic. Looking back at history, Gorsuch endured two years of controversy before vacating her EPA post. The ethical swirl surrounding Pruitt is, in a relative sense at least, new.

Nevertheless, with his political capital much diminished and his 29% public approval rating trailing Trump’s, Pruitt is likely more of a liability than asset to a president who’s been quick to fire those he deems no longer useful. No matter what that president may say publicly.

This piece was first published on Forbes and is reprinted with their permission.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.