On July 5, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced his resignation amid more than a dozen investigations into allegations of his ethical misconduct. Pruitt’s brief tenure at the agency was unprecedented both for its aggressive attacks on environmental rules as well as the myriad scandals surrounding his office. The 13 active federal investigations into Pruitt’s office range from misuse of public funds to financial ties with energy lobbyists to attacks on EPA staffers who questioned his actions.
But for the environment, Pruitt’s departure represents, at best, a partial victory. Since taking office last year, Pruitt has made it his mission to dismantle not only core environmental protections, but also the EPA’s regulatory system itself. Yet, as is so often the case with this administration, Pruitt’s brazen and messy tactics have also served to undercut his anti-regulatory agenda.
In his obsessive drive to kill the Clean Water Rule, for instance, Pruitt did everything he could to shut the public out of the process. While the Obama EPA had given the public 180 days to comment on the 2015 rule and scheduled dozens of public hearings, Pruitt allotted just 30 days and held just one public meeting on his repeal effort. One of Pruitt’s allies in Congress even suggested ignoring public comments entirely.
While deeply troubling, this strategy has repeatedly left Pruitt open to legal challenge, and created precisely the kind of regulatory uncertainty that the energy sector has long opposed. “Industry really has no idea what they can rely on in this atmosphere,” Meleah Geertsma, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Prospect last year. “It seems to be hurting the people that Pruitt is trying to help. Industry lawyers have not been happy.”
At every step, what Pruitt lacked was institutional knowledge and a clear, long-term strategy for dismantling environmental protections. Unfortunately, this will likely not be the case for the EPA chief’s heir apparent, Andrew Wheeler, an archetypical Washington insider who shares Pruitt’s obsession with ripping up critical environmental protections. For the past three decades, Wheeler has pursued a radically anti-environmental strategy both inside and outside the EPA. Having gotten his start at the agency under President George H.W. Bush, Wheeler subsequently helped oversee the agency as chief counsel for the (Republican-dominated) Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Since then, he’s served as an aide to Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, one of the most strident climate-science opponents in Congress. Wheeler has also worked as a long-time lobbyist for Murray Energy, a large coal mining company. Since April 2018, Wheeler has served as EPA’s deputy administrator.
Wheeler “knows much more about managing the agency and the technical side of the environmental statutes that EPA is charged with enforcing than Pruitt,” a giddy Myron Ebell told The Guardian on Friday. A longstanding climate denier himself, Ebell headed President Trump’s EPA transition team and authored an “agency action” plan that included defunding the agency’s scientific research and inviting fossil fuel industry insiders onto EPA science advisory boards.
For the regulatory system and democratic norms, Pruitt’s exit is likely a net positive. For the environment, the prospects seem much worse. Less than a week before Pruitt announced his departure, Nature Geoscience published startling new predictions of global temperature increases fueled by melting polar ice. The study, led by a team of international researchers from 17 countries, warns that melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica could push global temperatures twice as high as current models suggest over the next century. At this particularly dangerous moment in human history, Pruitt’s exit may, amazingly, not bode well.