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An environment without ethics? | The World Weekly

We’re going to have little tidbits left, but we’re going to take a tremendous amount out.” On the campaign trail in 2016, Donald Trump promised to radically curtail the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), painting it as a regulatory menace that was putting sustainability over economic growth. To achieve this goal he nominated Scott Pruitt – a man who had sued the EPA fourteen times as Oklahoma’s attorney general.

Mr. Pruitt’s conduct during his first year as administrator of the EPA has recently come under the spotlight.

It was revealed by multiple news outlets that two close aides of Mr. Pruitt had been given large raises in March. Apparently after the White House denied the request for the pay rise, Mr. Pruitt’s team rehired the two aides under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which gave the EPA sole control over the pair’s wages. 

An internal email obtained by The Atlantic suggested that Mr. Pruitt personally signed off on the pay deal. In an interview on Fox News, Mr. Pruitt denied involvement.

A further revelation included the news that Mr. Pruitt paid $50 per night, until the arrangement ended in July 2017, to stay in a Washington DC condo owned by the wife of energy lobbyist J. Steven Hart. Government ethics experts warned that Mr. Hart’s numerous corporate clients with pending cases with the EPA raised serious concerns about Mr. Pruitt’s impartiality.

Security has been an unusual priority for Mr. Pruitt. He has a 24/7 security detail – the first head of the EPA to do so. According to the Associated Press, his roughly 20-member team has accompanied Mr. Pruitt on holiday, and he has had a new soundproof phone booth installed in his office. Total security costs so far are estimated at $3 million.

The EPA refused to confirm details of the administrator’s security, maintaining that Mr. Pruitt has received an “unprecedented” amount of death threats. Yet, Democratic Senators Tom Carper and Sheldon Whitehouse released a letter on Tuesday claiming that they had viewed “non-public EPA documents” which found no “credible direct threat to the EPA administrator”. 

Investigations are already underway into Mr. Pruitt’s conduct. The House Oversight Committee announced it was probing Mr. Pruitt’s vast travel expenditure, including regular flights in first class, and the infamous $50-a-night rental. EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkin has an ongoing audit into Mr. Pruitt’s wider spending and is considering whether to investigate if the rental violated federal ethics rules.

Independent observers have praised these new probes. “The fact that Pruitt doesn't seem to understand why his actions even create the appearance of impropriety is troubling,” Laura Peterson, investigator at nonpartisan independent watchdog The Project for Government Oversight, told The World Weekly.

Meanwhile the White House is undertaking its own review of Mr. Pruitt’s conduct. In recent weeks President Trump has fired many of his senior team, including Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and HR McMaster as national security adviser. Yet Mr. Trump publicly backed the EPA administrator, tweeting that “Scott is doing a great job!”

Industry over science

It is not only Mr. Pruitt’s professional conduct that has stirred controversy. The Trump administration has radically altered US environmental policy, most prominently by withdrawing America from the Paris Climate Accords. This global plan to limit global warming at two degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels will not include the USA - the world’s second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. 

Mr. Trump shakes hands with Mr. Pruitt after announcing the United States's withdrawal from the Paris climate accords at the White House on June 1, 2017.

The EPA is working to repeal former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan (which mandated for power plants to cut carbon emissions by 32% by 2030), it has suspended the 2015 Water of the United States rule (this limited the level of pollution in roughly 60% of bodies of water in America) and this month began curtailing a previous plan to double new vehicle fuel efficiency by 2025.

Activity enforcing environmental standards has even, arguably, declined. According to analysis of EPA enforcement data for the 2017 fiscal year, which includes three months of the Obama presidency, recommendations for criminal prosecution and fines for polluters both fell on the previous year. The EPA presented it as a successful year of “deterring noncompliance”. Critics saw it as the beginnings of the hollowing out of the agency’s activities.

Scott Pruitt and the EPA maintain that they are committed to appropriate environmental regulation. Setting out his “back-to-basics” agenda in April 2017, Mr. Pruitt declared that this would mean “protecting the environment by engaging with state, local, and tribal partners to create sensible regulations that enhance economic growth”.

Critics note that this rhetoric clashes with the reality of recent EPA policy. “Mr. Pruitt has led a hostile takeover of the Environmental Protection Agency, with his direction set by the fossil fuel industries that the EPA is supposed to oversee and regulate,” says Tom Pelton, director of communications at independent non-profit the Environmental Integrity Project.

Indeed, members of industry have enjoyed extraordinary access to the EPA administrator. According to analysis by Reuters, Mr. Pruitt held 25 times more meetings with members of industry than environmental advocates in his first seven months in office. For critics of the agency, these fears are embodied in the expected confirmation this week of Andrew Wheeler, ex-coal industry lobbyist, as EPA deputy administrator.

This access seems to bear fruit. The New York Times reported that during his stay at Mr. Hart’s wife’s condo, Mr. Pruitt approved an extension of the Alberta Clipper pipeline. It so happened that Mr. Hart’s lobbying firm Williams & Jensen was working with the pipeline company at the time. The EPA and Mr. Hart’s firm denied any link between the two events.

Posters mocking Mr. Pruitt's spending scandals appeared around Washington DC this week.

For members of the scientific community, these decisions point to a deeper attack on science’s role in decision-making at the agency. The EPA’s Scientific Advisory Boards have been radically overhauled, with more representation for industry and the removal of scientists who receive EPA grants – no full meetings have reportedly been held since August 2017.

Robert Richardson was one of the scientists removed from the EPA Board of Scientific Counsellors last year. “I do not believe that this EPA administrator is open to keeping scientific principles and established facts in US government policy,” Mr. Richardson, now serving as assistant professor at Michigan State University, told TWW. “These boards and their committees exist to advise on matters pertaining to science — not the impacts of regulations on industry.”

Under Mr. Pruitt, climate science has been routinely eradicated from EPA decision-making. References to humans’ role in climate change have been removed from EPA websites. Leaked talking points showed staffers instructed to stress the “continuing debate and dialogue” connected to human activity and climate change.

In March, a measure was introduced for the agency to only consider scientific research that could be made public. Billed as a victory for transparency, scientists lamented it as excluding vital studies that rely on confidential personal data.

“These actions are just a few examples of how the EPA — with the support of the broader administration — has dictated environmental policy to favour the concerns of industry, and to marginalise objective, evidence-based concerns raised by science,” argues Mr. Richardson.

‘Boot Pruitt’

Amongst conservative Americans, Mr. Pruitt’s pro-industry attitude to environmental regulation makes him a great success story of the Trump administration. Republican Senator Ted Cruz derided ethical criticism of Mr. Pruitt as the work of “Obama groupies”.

Yet the environmental deregulation undertaken by the EPA is on uncertain ground, with a string of measures struck down by the courts. In one example, a judge ruled in March that the EPA had violated federal law by radically curtailing the period for public comments when it delayed a ruling on pesticide standards for American agriculture.

Experts underline that misconduct investigations against Mr. Pruitt are separate matters from the EPA’s environmental record. “Performance is irrelevant when reviewing alleged misconduct by a cabinet official,” says Corey Goldstone, spokesperson for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Centre.

Regardless, this week’s revelations have consolidated months of building controversy against Mr. Pruitt. On Wednesday, the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238 (the union representing 8,000 out of the 14,000 EPA employees) backed a movement to fire Mr. Pruitt.

The same day also saw a group of Democratic senators announce that they would introduce a resolution to the Senate calling for Mr. Pruitt to resign or be fired for “the good of the American people”.

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