Opinion

Scott Pruitt is too corrupt to be corrupted

The EPA administrator didn't need a bribe to destroy the EPA

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is in hot water over a condo. It turns out that in 2017 he stayed for several months in a room co-owned by the wife of a bigshot energy lobbyist, and at one point met with a representative of that firm in his EPA office while he was staying there. He paid only a piddling $50 per night — and only when he actually slept there, not on a monthly basis. Then it turns out his daughter also stayed in another room in the same condo while she was working as a White House intern, and effectively they had the run of the entire place, not just the rooms. It was, in essence, a huge clandestine payment in the form of drastically under-market rent.

Speculation is rising that Pruitt might be the latest casualty of President Trump's firing spree, and EPA ethics staff are investigating. But it's important to emphasize that even outside his alleged corruption, he has been the worst EPA administrator in history.

Taking what look very much like bribes from energy lobbyists is just par for the course for Pruitt. Indeed, he may not have seen the ethical problem because he views his job as dismantling the agency for which he works on behalf of the fossil fuels industries. What's the big deal? It's not like it changed his views in any substantive way. He would have eagerly done the bidding of any energy lobbyist no matter how much money they were giving him. It's just what he did as the attorney general of Oklahoma, during which he repeatedly sued the EPA working hand-in-glove with oil and gas companies.

As defined by Congress, the EPA is supposed to protect the health of Americans by enforcing environmental law, but Administrator Pruitt's tenure has been focused almost entirely on dismantling as much of the existing architecture of environmental protections as possible. More than any previous EPA head, he has worked to accomplish the exact opposite of the intended purpose of the agency. He has rolled back President Obama's automobile efficiency standards, the Clean Power Plan, and stacked scientific advisory boards with science deniers and partisan hacks. Overall there have been 41 instances of EPA deregulation under Pruitt as of early February alone. His EPA insists that a gigantic toxic waste dump in Puerto Rico is fine, despite the fact that it was badly flooded during Hurricane Maria and many locals have suspicious illnesses.

And where he can't simply torch regulation (because it's often wildly illegal), he's stalled implementation as long as possible, through administrative delays, legal red tape, and simply refusing to staff tons of positions.

Perhaps most deviously, as Emily Atkin writes, he recently changed the scientific basis for EPA rulemaking to disqualify any research not based on public data, following a trail blazed by notorious climate change denier Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). That superficially reasonable-sounding policy rules out most air quality research of any kind, which are based on medical datasets that are not public because of federal privacy law.

The objective, obviously, is to come up with any sort of pretext to make it easier for polluters to pollute. This one places a handy Catch-22 in the face of nearly anybody who wants to do serious science on pollution and health.

Oh and also Pruitt has an unprecedented 24/7 squad of bodyguards, a $25,000 secret phone booth in his office, spent $9,000 sweeping his office for surveillance bugs, and took multiple charter, private, and first-class flights costing at least $163,000 in total.

If there's one silver lining to Pruitt's effort to leave no American child brain un-poisoned, it's how he demonstrates the extent to which a committed ideologue can bend an agency to his will. The EPA is supposed to follow the latest science in carrying out its legal mandate, but by tendentiously disqualifying science that doesn't reach a prearranged ideological conclusion, Pruitt has effectively gutted the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. That likely won't stand up to legal scrutiny, but by sandbagging the regulatory process as long as possible, his goal has already been achieved.

Democratic-appointed EPA administrators, for all their other good qualities, have often been fussy in the extreme about making sure their new rules are safe from any conceivable criticism — meaning a rule-making process that dragged out for months or years. While they of course should not violate the law, the EPA chief that has to clean up after Trump should follow Pruitt's lead in terms of aggressiveness. Purge out the Republican science deniers, stack the agency with fervent climate hawks, and blast out new regulations as fast as possible. Worry about legal challenges later, and in the meantime keep polluters on the back foot with a steady output of blistering new rules.

Indeed, such an approach will be necessary if the next president wants to undo the damage Pruitt has caused.

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