Since taking office, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been remarkably transparent about his general priorities and frustratingly opaque about his day-to-day dealings. A noted critic of the agency he now leads, Pruitt came to the EPA determined to dismantle regulations and ease what he deemed unfair burdens on industry, especially the fossil fuel industry.
The results of his work aren’t hard to see, from EPA declining to regulate a pesticide that its own scientists had linked to potential brain damage to Pruitt’s sweeping rollback of Obama-era environmental rules. But Pruitt’s tactics have largely been shrouded in mystery. For months, bucking the tradition set by every previous administration, Pruitt refused to make his daily schedule public, instead carrying out his work behind the curtain of his around-the-clock security detail and soundproof booth.
That changed in mid-September when, in response to a mountain of requests from media and nonprofit groups, the EPA agreed to begin publicizing Pruitt’s schedule. The earliest releases offer a glimpse into an administrator with deep ties to industry who made no effort to branch out in his new role — taking meetings with a leading chemical manufacturer, lobbyists for the farm bureau, president of a major petroleum lobbying group, and president of a truck equipment manufacturer in his first 15 days on the job.
That, in and of itself, shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has followed Pruitt’s rise from Oklahoma attorney general. In 2014, the New York Times revealed that Pruitt had sent a letter to the EPA on state letterhead that had been drafted by employees at Devon Energy, one of the largest energy companies in Oklahoma. Pruitt’s affinity for industry didn’t go away when he moved to the EPA; it was merely obscured for a time, hidden behind a firewall constructed between the agency and the American public.
But beyond meetings with representatives from the very industries his agency regulates, Pruitt’s schedule illuminates something perhaps even more revealing: an administrator who, for almost nine months, has shown little interest in seeking input from anyone who might contradict his own beliefs. In this way, Pruitt is hardly alone within the Trump administration; several top officials, as well as the president himself, have a tendency to selectively filter out opinions — or facts — that contradict their own beliefs.
“What has been revealed about Scott Pruitt’s calendar so far shows that his focus is entirely on serving the oil and gas industry and other big polluters — not the environment or the health of the American public, which he has a responsibility to protect,” Tom Pelton, communications director for the Environmental Integrity Project, told ThinkProgress via email. “All EPA administrators have a responsibility to listen to both sides of debates over regulations. But Pruitt’s attention is only on one side: the side of businesses that want to profit by rolling back environmental protections.”
In response to a request for more information about how Pruitt decides which groups to formally meet with and why, EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox sent a list of 28 public health and environment groups the EPA has met with, though the list did not specify whether those groups met with Pruitt directly. Additionally, Wilcox sent a Reuters article from January, in which former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said she regretted that the EPA was unable to better connect with people in rural America under her tenure.
It’s not unusual for an EPA administrator’s schedule to have a partisan bent; administrators are, after all, political appointees, and their priorities are bound to reflect those of the president. Under the Obama administration, McCarthy often took meetings with environmental advocacy groups like the Sierra Club or the Natural Resources Defense Council, groups that are vocal proponents of increased environmental protection and, at times, increased regulation. This was especially true in the summer of 2014, when McCarthy held a disproportionate number of meetings with Democratic lawmakers and environmental groups sensitive to the regulation the agency was working on at the time: the Clean Power Plan, the most ambitious attempt by any administration at domestic greenhouse gas regulation.
But unlike Pruitt, McCarthy also took meetings with industry groups that weren’t supportive of the proposed regulation. In the lead-up to the release of the final Clean Power Plan rule, the EPA conducted meetings with industry stakeholders, like the American Public Power Association, to solicit their input. McCarthy also reportedly called the president of the United Mine Workers of America — a union group that opposes the regulation — to discuss the impending rule.
Pruitt, meanwhile, has officially met with representatives from just three environmental and public health groups: the American Academy of Pediatrics, Trout Unlimited, and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Unofficially, he met with representatives from the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society following remarks he gave at the annual Earth Day Texas gathering.
The EPA classified those interactions as “meetings,” though Audubon spokesman Nicolas Gonzalez told ThinkProgress such a characterization stretches the truth — the meeting was, in fact, an impromptu, unscheduled summit between Pruitt and representatives from the environmental groups, who were also speaking at the event. According to Gonzalez, the meeting lasted no more than 30 minutes. Still, that didn’t stop the EPA from issuing a press release touting Pruitt’s trip to Texas as including a meeting with environmental groups.
“It was not a meeting of any substance,” Gonzalez said. “It was technically a meeting, and that’s how the EPA characterized it right away, but honestly, if that’s all they have to show as far as meeting with environmental groups after dozens of meeting with industry, it speaks for itself.”
It should speak for itself that the Environmental Protection Agency, with a mission to protect human health and the environment, should operate in service to the American public, not the very industries that prompted the creation of the agency in the first place. It should speak for itself that the leader of an agency with such a mission should, at the very least, solicit input from groups focused on the environment and public health.
But perhaps one of the most essential characteristics of the Trump era is that the things that should speak for themselves often don’t. Don’t refer to any part of a mass shooting as a miracle. Don’t compare an island currently operating with less than 10 percent electricity to a “real” catastrophe. Don’t argue for deep cuts to an agency, citing a misuse of taxpayer dollars, and then spend nearly one million dollars on things like a round-the-clock security detail or a soundproof booth. Don’t base environmental policy solely on the desires of the industry that would be regulated by those policies. Don’t agree to lead an agency when you don’t support its core mission.
There are a number of reasons Pruitt operates in such deference to the industries he regulates, though all are speculative. Some observers have suggested he might be eyeing political office beyond the EPA, perhaps making a run for Senate or Oklahoma governor. In that case, having allies in the fossil fuel industry would be an asset to his campaign. It’s also possible that Pruitt deeply believes the Obama administration’s regulatory goals went too far at times, and that his job is to help right those previous wrongs.
But if that’s the case, it hardly explains Pruitt’s almost complete freeze-out of environmental and public health groups from the EPA. Serving as EPA administrator means directing an agency with 15,000 employees and 10 regional offices. It means dealing with concerns from Washington to Florida, and it means talking to groups that, at times, might vehemently disagree with your position.
“As administrator, you don’t take the job thinking everyone is going to agree with you,” Liz Purchia, former head of communications for the EPA under Obama, told ThinkProgress. “But you have an obligation to bring different voices together, to invest the time to listen, to welcome diverse opinions and to find practical solutions so you can make progress on the environment.”
Since taking office, Pruitt has demonstrated an almost total aversion to opposing viewpoints — something that Mother Jones reporter Rebecca Leber has dubbed Pruitt’s “media echo chamber.” When he travels for EPA business, he rarely alerts local media or allows reporters to ask him questions. When he gives interviews, it’s almost always to conservative outlets or talk-radio, to hosts and reporters that let him prattle about “cooperative federalism” and “EPA originalism” without asking follow-up questions about deep cuts to state environmental agency funding, or the original nature of the EPA’s mission.
In his first speech as EPA administrator, Pruitt promised career staff that he would “listen, learn, and lead.” Pruitt has certainly listened to industry in his first nine months as administrator. He might learn more if he listened to others, as well.