Scott Pruitt hasn’t saved taxpayers anything

Pruitt's allies are jumping to his defense by arguing that he has saved taxpayers more than he has spent. That's not true.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt walks into the Rose Garden before President Donald Trump announces his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement at the White House June 1, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt walks into the Rose Garden before President Donald Trump announces his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement at the White House June 1, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

As Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt faces a growing number of scandals tied to his rental of a Capitol Hill condo co-owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist, allies have begun mounting a new defense. They are arguing that the administrator’s lavish spending habits are offset by his success in rolling back environmental regulations.

On Meet the Press on Sunday, Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD) argued that Pruitt should keep his job because he has been effective in implementing the Trump administration’s far-reaching deregulatory agenda. Pruitt’s use of taxpayer dollars for things like first class travel and office decorations, Rounds continued, was justified because Pruitt had saved taxpayers money through his deregulatory actions.

It’s a similar line of reasoning that Pruitt himself took up in January, when he cheered his agency’s deregulatory actions, claiming that they had saved the American public $300 million in regulatory costs.

As Pruitt faces a growing number of calls to resign over the growing scandals, it’s not surprising that his allies would turn to regulatory costs as a reason for Pruitt to stay.

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It’s an argument that combines two of conservatives’ favorite talking points when it comes to the environment — cutting regulatory burdens on business and saving the American taxpayer money. Even President Trump himself got in on the action this weekend, tweeting that Pruitt’s tenure has seen “Record clean Air & Water while saving USA Billions of Dollars.”

There’s just one problem with that argument: It’s wildly misleading.

The defenses both overstate Pruitt’s effectiveness in rolling back environmental regulations and conflate monetary costs saved by industry with public health and environmental costs borne by the American public.

As a member of Trump’s cabinet, Pruitt has certainly been effective in initiating a slew of environmental rollbacks, from beginning the repeal of the Clean Power Plan to convincing the Trump administration to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement.

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In total, he has finalized 22 regulatory rollbacks, with 44 actions still pending. But regulatory rollbacks aren’t always immediately successful, and most of Pruitt’s actions have been met with a wall of resistance in both the public sphere and in courts.

The speed with which Pruitt has pursued regulatory rollbacks — often cheered by the president and Republican allies as a sign of his effectiveness — has left the agency little time to amass the body of evidence usually required for issuing a regulatory, or deregulatory, action. Already, a number of Pruitt’s rollbacks have been overturned in federal court on the basis of insufficient justification.

Still, even for the 22 regulatory actions that have been finalized under Pruitt’s leadership, the savings cheered by Trump and Republican allies are mostly compliance costs — meaning that they would have been shouldered by industry, not the American taxpayer.

The Clean Power Plan, for instance, would have put limits on emissions from power plants and forced the shifting of electricity generation from emissions-intensive fuel like coal to more renewable sources of energy. Compliance costs from the Clean Power Plan would largely have been shouldered by coal or utilities, two sectors that lobbied hard against the rules and have cheered Pruitt’s steps to repeal.

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Looking just at compliance costs also ignores the vast number of benefits — both economic and social — that regulations like the Clean Power Plan can have for society overall.

According to a 2017 analysis by the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University’s School of Law, for instance, costs of the Clean Power Plan would have been about $5.1 and $8.4 billion annually, while benefits would have been about $54 billion annually. This means that the Clean Power Plan would have created a net economic benefit of between $45.6 billion and $48.9 billion.

But those benefits are largely public health and environmental benefits — things like lower healthcare costs from reduced air pollution, or fewer missed work days due to respiratory illness. Compliance costs would still have been shouldered by industry — which explains why when it comes to accounting for regulation, Pruitt and Trump seem more concerned with the costs to industry than the benefits to public health.

In reality, Pruitt’s most effective legacy hasn’t been regulatory rollbacks to save money — it’s been in the cut-and-dry bureaucratic policy of the EPA, which has done more to undermine the agency’s ability to hold polluters accountable than save taxpayer dollars.

He has remade the way that the agency uses science in its regulatory decisions, announcing his intention in late March to ban the use of data that isn’t publicly available — effectively knee-capping the kinds of public health studies, which often rely on anonymous or confidential information, that agency scientists can employ.

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He has also overseen a mass exodus of EPA staff, reducing the agency to employment numbers near Reagan-era levels. The offices hit hardest by Pruitt-era staffing numbers are offices that deal with chemical safety and pollution prevention, research and technology, and environmental enforcement.

In fact, Pruitt’s deference to industry has actually caused the EPA to leave money on the table, compared to previous administrations, when it comes to recouping damages from pollution and broken environmental laws.

Enforcement against polluters has dropped significantly under Pruitt’s leadership, with the EPA resolving just 48 civil cases in its first year under the Trump administration — compared with 71 civil cases under the Obama administration’s first year and 112 cases under the George W. Bush administration’s first year.

The penalties sought in those actions have also been significantly lower compared to the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. Under Pruitt’s first year, the EPA took in $30 million in penalties against polluters, versus $81 million in Obama’s first year and $70 million during George W. Bush’s first year.

But while Pruitt has been ineffective at the kinds of regulatory rollbacks that could save industry money — and effective at undercutting the kind of work the EPA does to hold polluters accountable for environmental damages — he has been extremely effective at spending taxpayer money for his own needs.

Since coming to the agency, Pruitt has demanded more security than any of his predecessors, requesting a round-the-clock security detail that has cost taxpayers nearly $3 million. Pruitt has also spent more than $168,000 on air travel during his first year in office, often flying first class while taxpayers footed the bill but preferring coach when he was paying the costs himself.

The reality is that when politicians like President Trump or Senator Rounds talk about Pruitt’s track record of success, they aren’t referring to his work as EPA Administrator in a traditional sense.

Before Pruitt, the mission of the EPA was to protect public health and the environment — something the agency did through environmental regulations and enforcement actions against polluters. But now, under Pruitt, an extremely hard-line conservative vision for the EPA has taken hold. Pruitt might stumble when it comes to regulatory rollbacks, but he has been ruthlessly effective at turning the EPA into an agency captured by industry — and for some Republican lawmakers, that’s well worth the cost of Pruitt’s personal scandals.