Scott Pruitt makes it clear that the Clean Power Plan is going away

In his first interview as EPA administrator, Pruitt says he wants to refocus the agency on a more narrow role.

Supreme Court associate justice Samuel Alito, right, swears in Scott Pruitt as the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Supreme Court associate justice Samuel Alito, right, swears in Scott Pruitt as the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

In his first interview as EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt made one thing very clear: the Clean Power Plan, the signature climate regulation of the Obama administration, is not long for this world.

Pruitt told the Wall Street Journal on Friday that he expects to quickly withdraw both the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States Rule, the Obama administration’s attempt at clarifying the EPA’s regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act.

“There’s a very simple reason why this needs to happen: Because the courts have seriously called into question the legality of those rules,” Pruitt said.

As Oklahoma Attorney General, Pruitt was party to lawsuits against the EPA for both the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States Rule. Challenges to both rules are currently working their way through the court system, but Pruitt made clear that he does not intend to wait for the courts to decide before initiating the rule-making process necessary to withdraw both rules. Altogether, Pruitt sued the EPA fourteen times before becoming administrator.

Pruitt refused to say whether he thought the EPA should have a role in regulating carbon and other greenhouse gases, something that had been a priority for the agency under the Obama administration. Pruitt has consistently challenged the mainstream scientific consensus on climate change, arguing that there is significant debate as to whether it is happening and whether humans are the primary cause (in reality there is little to no debate about those questions — 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate change is both happening and that human activity is contributing to it).

“There will be a rule-making process to withdraw those rules, and that will kick off a process,” Pruitt told the Wall Street Journal. “And part of that process is a very careful review of a fundamental question: Does EPA even possess the tools, under the Clean Air Act, to address this? It’s a fair question to ask if we do, or whether there in fact needs to be a congressional response to the climate issue.”

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts vs. EPA that the EPA does, in fact, possess the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases as air pollutants. That decision helped pave the way for the Clean Power Plan, though critics have attacked the specific methods the Obama administration used to fight climate change, arguing that they were illegal.

Pruitt told the Wall Street Journal that as EPA administrator, he is most focused on issues like cleaning up Superfund sites and bringing states into compliance with federal air quality standards. In this area, Pruitt has less of an established track-record than he does with litigation against the EPA: as Oklahoma Attorney General, he disbanded the office’s Environmental Protection Unit, dedicated to pursuing environmental law violations, and pursued only three environmental enforcement cases during his six years as Attorney General.

Pruitt also told the Wall Street Journal that he intends to restore power to states, echoing a long-held belief of Pruitt’s that the EPA’s actions under the Obama administration have constituted federal overreach. He said that environmental laws were not meant to be a “one-size-fits-all model,” and that “the state departments of environmental quality have an enormous role to play.”

During his confirmation hearing, however, Pruitt refused to say whether he would grant California a waiver, under the Clean Air Act, to create stricter vehicle emission standards than the rest of the country. California has been denied such a waiver only once, during George W. Bush’s administration.

Pruitt also said that, as EPA administrator, he would focus on creating regulatory certainty that will help industry and spur job growth. Pruitt has long been a friend of the fossil fuel industry — emails revealed during a 2014 investigation by the New York Times showed Pruitt sending a letter of complaint to the EPA, in his role as Oklahoma Attorney General, drafted by Devon Energy, the largest energy company in Oklahoma.

The night before Pruitt was confirmed as EPA administrator by the Senate, a judge in Oklahoma ordered Pruitt’s office to release thousands of emails between the nominee and oil and gas companies. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) had requested access to those emails two years ago, but Pruitt’s office refused. The office has until Tuesday to release some 3,000 documents, which may reveal more coordination between Pruitt and industry actors.

Meanwhile, in one of his first tweets as EPA administrator, Pruitt pledged to working with important stakeholders — like industry — in his new role.