By Anders Lorenzen
Environmentalists in the US and abroad were celebrating last week, as the very controversial administrator of the country’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, resigned. This came after a string of controversies had centred around his use of taxpayer`s money for his personal affairs.
But that celebration was short-lived, as it was learned that he would be replaced by a coal lobbyist. This represents just another chapter in the drama in Donald Trump’s White House.
In his resignation letter published by Vox.com, Pruitt said he was resigning, due to unrelenting attacks on him by the public. This translates into the explanation that he was unhappy that people opposed his reforms of the EPA. He did not mention any of the corruption scandals, a record high for an EPA Administrator. And in reality, the true cause for his resignation was that his position had become untenable.
The damage caused for the EPA
Unfortunately, his departure leaves the EPA in such a mess that is unlikely to be fixed by his predecessor. In fact, it is more likely to be enhanced. Pruitt, during his time as the Attorney General of Oklahoma, sued the EPA a record number of times. And during his tenure as the administrator of the agency, he initiated policies preventing its ability to act on climate change and safeguard clean air and water, and by taking the side of big polluting businesses rather than the American public.
As administrator Pruitt pushed for budget cuts and staff cuts at the agency. He aggressively rolled back environmental regulations.
At his Senate confirmation hearing, Pruitt refrained from his usual climate denial rhetoric. But once in office, his actions spoke a different language. He quickly set his sights on ripping apart Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
And he went even further by removing any reference to climate change from EPA websites, and he was the catalyst in persuading Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement (though it was also one of Trump’s campaign promises). He also began the process of removing EPA scientists from the staff and replacing them with energy industry personnel with vested interests in the fossil fuel industry.
Pruitt’s radical reforms of the EPA will not last, at least not beyond a Trump presidency. But they could cause long-term damage and delay cutting emissions and thus affecting people’s health. Before leaving office he managed to undo some of Obama’s new fuel efficiency standards. All of this will, of course, be tested in the courts but it could be years before it is overturned.
Status quo to remain
So what’s next? Into the office steps Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and a former senior aide to one of the chief climate deniers in the Senate, James Inhofe, and of course a good friend of Pruitt’s. After learning of the new acting administrator’s appointment, environmentalists could only wonder and worry about what might happen next.
Wheeler primarily worked as a lobbyist for Murray Energy which is the largest underground coal mining company in the US. Its founder, Robert E. Murray, is a supporter of Trump and it is believed he gave Trump a wish list of environmental policies.
Wheeler likely to be more successful than Pruitt
There is a genuine worry because Wheeler is more professional and experienced than Pruitt. He understands the political games in Washington, and he will, therefore, have more luck in carrying out his policies. He is unlikely to be caught up in personal scandals as was his predecessor. It is important to note that it was not Pruitt’s anti-environmental agenda that stopped him, but more his stupidity.
When considering any EPA Administrator in a Trump administration, it is important to clarify his position on climate change. Wheeler does not attribute climate change to human activity.
Wheeler is still only the acting administrator. His appointment is pending a Senate hearing, but there are other names vying for that office. And it is unlikely that a hearing could be completed before midterm elections in November, as the Democrats would be sure to delay the process, and might well have a majority by then putting them in a position to block the appointment. It is also possible Trump might want some stability following the scandals of Pruitt before he nominates a new administrator.
The excitement of Pruitt`s resignation has been replaced with continued intense worry among environmentalists about human-induced climate change. It seems, that the priority for whoever Trump puts in charge of the EPA, will be to dismantle any ability the organisation had to tackle climate change while giving the fossil fuel industry more powers.
The days are gone where the best solution was to find common ground and work with whoever directs the EPA. Climate hawks and environmentalists alike, whether activists, business, NGO’s, politicians, the public and so on seem now to be left with only the option of resisting and delaying. And all eyes will now be on the midterm elections.