Politics & Policy

Environmentalists’ Fact-Free Case against Scott Pruitt

Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (Reuters: Jonathan Ernst)
Pruitt’s record is one of defending the environment and attempting to get the EPA to operate within the law.

Environmentalists know that they don’t like Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general whom President-elect Donald Trump has tapped to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. But they don’t seem to know exactly why, based on the fact-free attacks being lobbed in his direction. Could it be that they’re simply mistaken?

Sure, Pruitt’s led the movement of states resisting the Obama-era EPA’s overreaches and challenging them in court. (In full disclosure: He brought us in to represent Oklahoma in its challenge to EPA carbon-emission rules.) But his point in those cases has always been that the EPA has to live within the limits of the law, including the constitutional prohibition on the federal government from directing the states to do its bidding. So when the EPA overstepped the line, Pruitt took it to court. A desire to see the agency follow the law isn’t exactly disqualifying for an EPA administrator.

It also doesn’t say much about how Pruitt regards the environment. He’s on record as arguing that conservatives should recognize the important role of the EPA in addressing pollution that flows across state lines, which is a uniquely federal problem. But that, he’s said, should be the EPA’s focus. Echoing the Clean Air Act itself, Pruitt’s view is that most pollution is the primary responsibility of states and local governments. Only they can understand and act on the trade-offs involved in environmental protection and have the flexibility to take into account local needs, rather than impose one-size-fits-all nationwide rules.

On that score, Pruitt has practiced what he preached. When he entered office in 2011, one of the most serious environmental problems facing Oklahoma was poultry runoff, mostly from Arkansas farms, fouling the waters of the Illinois River and Lake Tenkiller in the eastern part of the state. Oklahoma had brought a federal lawsuit against 14 poultry producers in 2005, and it took nearly five years for the case to be teed up for a decision, in 2010.

After waiting two more years for the court to act, Pruitt decided to take matters into his own hands and negotiated a solution directly with Arkansas. The states commissioned Baylor University researchers to study Oklahoma’s water-quality standards and worked together to reduce runoff through increased waste treatment and disposing of poultry waste outside the river basin.

J. D. Strong, the former head of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, specifically credits Pruitt with getting all the responsible parties “around the table” to make progress. During Pruitt’s tenure, Strong told Energy & Environment News, the state “made great strides when it comes to actual efforts to clean up scenic rivers in Oklahoma.”

Today, Lake Tenkiller has reclaimed its position as the “emerald jewel in Oklahoma’s crown of lakes” and is popular for fishing and watersports — a result that Pruitt, an avid fly-fisherman, has touted as a point of pride. Meanwhile, the federal court still hasn’t ruled on Oklahoma’s pollution lawsuit.

Pruitt’s record shows that he’s also serious about law enforcement, a core function of the EPA. Some environmentalists have tarred Pruitt as being in the pocket of the energy industry, but energy companies that he has sued, such as BP and ConocoPhillips, might have a different view of things. The state of Oklahoma accused those companies and others of “double-dipping” by billing the state for environmental-cleanup expenses for underground tanks that had already been paid for by insurance. One of those lawsuits was settled this past June, netting the state $2.8 million.

Pruitt’s record shows that he’s also serious about law enforcement, a core function of the EPA.

The other talking point of Pruitt’s opponents is that he’s a climate-change “denier,” but they never seem to be able to pin down anything he’s said or written denying the phenomenon — which is notable, given his leadership in opposing the Obama EPA’s climate-change regulations and many opportunities to express that view. What he has said is that “scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”

That same view is shared by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has acknowledged that future climate changes “cannot be precisely predicted” and that the mechanisms of climate change “are not yet completely understood.” Even the Obama EPA recognizes that scientists are still researching “how much Earth will warm, how quickly it will warm, and what the consequences of the warming will be.”

If Pruitt is asked at his confirmation hearing whether he believes in climate change resulting from human activity, we know that he’ll respond in the affirmative, based on his understanding of the science. But to his opponents, he’ll still be a “denier,” just because he opposes an unlawful and enormously expensive regulatory program that the EPA’s own model says won’t have any measurable impact on the climate. So much for following the science.

We suspect that environmentalists oppose Scott Pruitt not because of his views on the environment. Instead, they know that he’ll focus on the EPA’s nuts-and-bolts missions of enforcing the law and policing interstate pollution while forgoing the grand, expensive, and often pointless gestures that have been the EPA’s hallmark under the current administration. That’s their problem.

But, for the rest of us, Pruitt will be a welcome breath of fresh air.

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