The first months of the Trump administration have brought a rare blizzard of news about the Environmental Protection Agency.
Scott Pruitt, at the helm, has taken an unusually public role for an EPA chief. He makes news regularly with press appearances and regulatory decisions that sometime seem bizarre for a regulator charged with the safety of America’s environment. And he arrived at a moment of apparent turmoil for the EPA.
There were days of press silence from the agency starting as soon as Trump took office. A former transition official, Myron Ebell, gave interviews in which he suggested the agency’s staff and budget would be cut to a third of its size. Rumours flew, including the suggestion that Trump intended to ban science at the agency and scrub climate data from its servers. Trump’s transition head emailed employees to tell them he had no idea what the president’s plans were.
The public seems to have noticed all the turmoil. Since Trump won the 2016 presidential election, Business Insider readers have shown a renewed interest in environmental coverage. In March, a Gallup poll found that 57% per cent of Americans think Trump is doing a “poor” job protecting the environment, a far worse ranking than George W. Bush or Barack Obama received in their first years.
All of which made us wonder: As he approaches his 100-day mark in late May, how unusual has Pruitt’s short tenure at the agency really been?
Pruitt alarmed environmentalists even before he started implementing Trump’s agenda.
In his previous role as Oklahoma State Attorney General, he sued the agency 14 times, always in an effort to block a regulation or cleanup effort. A Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigation found that he had signed his name on letters to the EPA that were actually written by energy companies.
By the time of Pruitt’s confirmation vote, nearly 800 former EPA employees had signed a letter opposing his selection.
Since assuming the administrator’s office, Pruitt’s rhetoric has stood out from his predecessors in both parties.
While past Republican administrators have talked about balancing environmental stewardship with the interests of business and limited government, Pruitt has presented himself almost entirely as a small government conservative, with only passing references to the agency’s public health and safety roles. He has also publicly doubted the science of climate change. That’s an unusual move for an EPA administrator, Republican or Democrat.
“Until we get to the Trump administration, most Republican EPA administrators were sort of mainstream, establishment republicans and more business-friendly,” said Michael Kraft, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin who has made a career studying and writing about the EPA.
“They would be more sceptical of regulations that the business community objected to. That’s kind of standard fare. But they didn’t speak in terms that went after the EPA’s legitimacy, they didn’t question the agency’s staff competence, expertise. They didn’t ask for slashing the budget of the EPA,” he added.
Former EPA employee Jovita Pajarillo, who was an Assistant Director of EPA’s Region 9’s Water Division, echoed Kraft’s statements. Republican administrations in general “wouldn’t want us to go too far in terms of regulating the industry,” she told Business Insider.
Previous administrations would offer up budget cuts, but none as steep as the cuts Pruitt has supported, she said.
‘We’re a big ship and we’re just going in a direction we don’t know’
It’s not unusual for EPA administrators appointed by Republicans to face some resistance from within their agencies. And Republicans have made political hay in recent years out of criticising EPA regulations.
Terry Tamminen, who led California’s unusually powerful state EPA under Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger — and had previously sued the agency for failing to enforce environmental laws — said employees were initially alarmed by his arrival. Tamminen ultimately won over many of his employees by going out of his way to meet as many staff members as possible, he told Business Insider.
With Pruitt at the helm, current and former EPA employees who spoke to Business Insider report an agency adrift. EPA employees are reportedly getting little in the way of communication about upcoming decisions, and regional offices are only minimally in touch with headquarters.
“Typically shortly after a [new] administrator comes in, you get some sense of priorities, and folks start to turn the ship or adjust course a bit,” one current EPA employee, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told Business Insider. “But we’ve had nothing and we’re a big ship and it’s just going in a direction we don’t know.”
Pajarillo told Business Insider in an email that employees may not have heard much about a direction because Pruitt has not filled many high-level EPA appointments, which has left “a vacuum of leadership and the inability to set any agenda.”
Pruitt also seems to be skipping many of the traditional ways past EPA chiefs have gotten to know their agencies in their first months.
“It’s typical when there’s a new administrator, the new administrator will do a courtesy visit to all 10 regional EPA offices,” Pajarillo said. “It’s a standard protocol that a new administrators will do to meet the employees, managers, and gain a regional perspective on their set of environmental priorities and issues.”
Pruitt, who has had to fend off rumours that local offices would be closing, has skipped the tour.
‘I found it pretty offensive and crass’
Since Pruitt has been largely silent to his staff, the current EPA employee said staffers now get most of their EPA news from the media, just like everyone else.
Most of Pruitt’s (and Trump’s) biggest policy steps, such as his decision not to ban a pesticide EPA scientists said was dangerous to children and farmworkers, have come with little warning to mid-level employees — with one exception.
“Perhaps 90 minutes to two hours before President Trump came to the EPA to sign his Executive Order [tearing down the Clean Power Plan, on which I worked] we got a chirpy message and the subject line was ‘EPA’s big day.’ It was an invitation for us to watch the signing… and it didn’t really give context,” the employee said.
That order, which Trump signed after an introduction from Pruitt, started the long regulatory process toward repealing the Clean Power Plan and scrapping other elements of President Obama’s climate legacy.
Many current and former EPA employees saw the move as a slap in the face.
“It pained me to see Trump there gleefully announcing that he would do all he could to increase spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” Chris Sproul, a former EPA Assistant Regional Counsel employee who served under four US presidents (three of them Republican) told Business Insider. He added, “I half expected him at any moment to cackle, ‘and your little dog Toto too.'”
“I found it pretty offensive and crass to label it as ‘EPA’s Big Day,'” the current employee said, “It was a pretty clear message to staff.”
‘Scott Pruitt is doing the Lord’s work’
The environmental movement’s response to Pruitt, who did not respond to a request for comment, has been largely negative. But some of Trump’s most ardent supporters seem encouraged by Pruitt’s tenure.
In a March interview with CNBC’s Joe Kernen, the network’s libertarian commentator asked Pruitt if he sees carbon dioxide, a gas that traps heat in the atmosphere, as the “primary control knob” for climate change. Pruitt, contradicting what he had told Congress during his confirmation hearings, said he did not. (This puts Pruitt at odds with a vast body of scientific evidence, some of which is hosted on EPA servers.)
James Delingpole, Breitbart’s writer on the climate science beat and a friend of White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s, wrote that the exchange showed “Scott Pruitt is doing the lord’s work.” (Delingpole has been critical of Scott Pruitt in recent weeks, however.)
“No serious person thinks that man-made carbon dioxide poses any kind of major climate threat because there’s just no evidence to support that theory,” Delingpole wrote. “It’s just one of those cherished left-liberal myths that goes next to other fantasy concepts like ‘equality,’ ‘sustainability,’ and ‘social justice.'”
After his confirmation in February, some political leaders praised the new EPA administrator. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia said “Attorney General Pruitt is the most thoroughly vetted nominee for administrator in the history of the EPA.”
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who worked with Pruitt in the past on a lawsuit targeting the Clean Power Plan, said, “Scott’s principled approach will respect the law and reinforce the EPA’s core mission to protect our air and water without unconstitutional and job killing overreach.”
Pruitt stood behind crippling cuts to the small agency
With Pruitt’s public support, the EPA stood to lose 32% of its 2016 budget before Congress scrapped those cuts in a budget agreement.
Trump’s budget would have seen the agency’s workforce, already down from its Bush-era 2003 peak of more than 17,000, slashed from about 15,000 to 12,000.
Pruitt’s Acting Chief Financial Officer David Bloom emailed a memo to all US EPA divisions detailing the proposed budget cuts on March 21st. The memo, signed by Bloom and obtained by Business Insider, told employees that the new budget “will require taking a comprehensive look at our priorities.”
To people versed in the workings of the EPA, that memo looked like a death sentence.
“If this was the first thing I heard from my new boss I think I’d be looking for another job,” Tamminen told BI.
Pruitt publicly stood by the president’s plan, though some reports had him haggling a bit over certain details.
Just how unusual is all this?
In a letter to governors after Trump signed the executive order to remove the Clean Power Plan, Pruitt wrote that states have “no obligation to spend resources” on the Clean Power Plan, adding, “the days of coercive federalism are over.”
Kraft said it’s not unusual for an EPA administrator appointed by a Republican president to be more friendly to business interests, including fossil-fuel producers, than a Democratic predecessor. But to find an administrator as openly antagonistic to EPA science or the agency’s existing work, he said, you have to look to the tenure of Anne Gorsuch.
Anne Gorsuch, mother of newly minted Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, served as the EPA administrator under President Ronald Reagan. She was the agency’s first female administrator.
“Like most Republicans, [Gorsuch had] concerns that maybe the regulations had gone too far, the burdens on business are too great, the costs are too great, the benefits are too limited, the priorities are wrong,” Kraft said.
But she acted on those concerns with an intensity that made her unpopular with the agency, as The New York Times reported. Employees of the era began referring to her as the “Ice Queen,” a term that eventually made its way into several Doonesbury comic strips about low morale at the agency.
Gorsuch resigned after just 22 months in office, amid a scandal concerning her handling of the $US1.6 billion Superfund program. Reagan then picked William Ruckelshaus, who had been the first EPA administrator (and later acting director of the FBI) under President Richard Nixon, to take over the agency.
“The E.P.A. I returned to in the spring of 1983, some 28 months into President Reagan’s first term, was dispirited and in turmoil,” Ruckelshaus wrote in a March 2017 editorial for the New York Times. “Its administrator, Anne M. Gorsuch, had been cited for contempt of Congress. Its budget had been reduced by almost 25 per cent, with more cuts promised. Staffing had been slashed.”
Ruckelshaus, during both his tenures, ran the EPA in a manner that was more typical of administrators picked by Republican presidents. In his first weeks in office, he banned DDT, a poisonous pesticide, and launched enforcement actions against major companies, including US Steel and Dow Chemical.
During his second tenure, he was more hands-off, neither pushing sharp cuts nor advancing notable new regulations. Nancy Marvel, a former Regional Counsel for EPA who began her tenure under Ruckelshaus, told Business Insider that morale at the EPA improved after he took over.
Later EPA chiefs under Republican presidents fit a similar mould. Marvel called William Reilly, the administrator under George H. W. Bush, “fabulous,” and Parajillo said Christine Todd Whitman, under George W. Bush, was one of the most “impressive” administrators she worked for.
Whitman took a sceptical view of certain Clinton-era regulations, but eventually let them move onto the federal register once they’d passed scientific review. Her successors, Mike Leavitt and Stephen Johnson, were less deferential to environmental interests than Whitman, but did not push for big cuts to the agency budget.
Even in past administrations that environmentalists viewed as hostile to climate science, the EPA never publicly endorsed views that contradict established science.
Marvel said that aside from Gorsuch’s period, George W. Bush’s administration “is the closest to what we’re seeing now, but it doesn’t even come close at all, even as bad as that was.”
Sproul said he also found past Republican administrations took his work seriously, and built trust with employees. So when George W. Bush’s team cut one of his regulations, he accepted it.
“They weren’t reflexively and ideologically hostile to the agency’s fundamental mission, and they weren’t affirmatively setting out for themselves, ‘How do we essentially destroy this agency,'” he said.
‘This man is qualified’
Many people interviewed for this story went out of their way to point out that Pruitt seemed to have the necessary qualifications to run his agency.
“There’s no doubt this man is qualified,” Tamminen said, noting Pruitt’s background in state politics. “It’s unfortunate that there’s anybody who may be qualified for the job but who’s unwilling to use the science at his disposal to make policy.”
Current and former EPA employees who spoke with Business Insider said Pruitt just seemed out of step with how they see the agency’s role.
“[Pruitt’s tenure] is shocking not in terms of the person’s lack of professional acumen,” Sproul said, saying Pruitt is technically qualified. “It’s shocking … in his values. You appointed someone to head an agency who is the sworn enemy of the agency he is now charged of leading.”
Much of the history of Pruitt’s EPA, Kraft says, has yet to be written. “We’re in the first few months of the administration,” Kraft said. “I don’t know if this will continue, but it’s certainly very different so far.”
“It looks like Pruitt and the Congress and this administration are undoing EPA and their regulations. Reagan had tried it in the past … but I think this administration is going to go farther,” Parajillo said.
More from Madeleine Sheehan Perkins:
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