Scott Pruitt’s ethics scandal hasn’t stopped him from rolling back environmental protections

Pruitt proves that he can deal with a massive scandal and serve industry at the same time.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt answers reporters' questions during a briefing at the White House June 2, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt answers reporters' questions during a briefing at the White House June 2, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt is facing calls to resign over ethical scandals, including recent news that he rented a condo co-owned by the wife of an energy industry lobbyist for $50 per night last year.

But the growing scandal surrounding Pruitt hasn’t stopped the administrator from dutifully carrying on with the Trump administration’s agenda of rolling back environmental regulations and protections. But far from signaling that Pruitt is out of touch with the growing scandal, his single-minded pursuit of environmental rollbacks show he is trying to focus instead on what he does best — pursuing the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda — in the hope that it might be enough to save his job.

On Monday, Pruitt kicked off the week by announcing his intention to roll back tailpipe emission standards established by the Obama administration. The standards — which were met with some resistance from the auto manufacturing industry — would have set greenhouse gas emission standards for cars, pick-up trucks, and sport utility vehicles for model years 2022-2025, and could have significantly reduced both greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector and oil use by automobiles.

During a speech on Tuesday — given after the New York Times broke the news that the EPA had signed off on a pipeline project linked to the lobbying firm chaired by the husband of the condo’s co-owner, while Pruitt was still staying at the condo — Pruitt announced that the agency would “reexamine” the standards in an effort to create more regulatory certainty for industry. Pruitt also argued that the Obama administration had cut the policy-making process short “with politically charged expediency.”


But he didn’t stop there. Despite news that Pruitt had gone around the White House to approve raises for two political appointees, using a little-known provision in the Safe Water Drinking Act that allows the EPA administrator to unilaterally hire up to 30 employees to the agency, Pruitt continued to push ahead with his deregulatory agenda this week. On Wednesday, The Hill reported that Pruitt released a memo delegating himself more authority over issues related to the Clean Water Act.

The memo gives Pruitt the authority to make “final determinations of geographic jurisdiction,” which gives him more leeway in deciding whether a particular project — things like power plants to coal refineries — will have a detrimental environmental impact. The EPA argued that this would help centralize decision making, despite Pruitt’s longstanding promise to return more power in environmental permitting decisions to the states through “cooperative federalism.”

On Wednesday, Pruitt appeared on several conservative-leaning outlets, in an apparent attempt to tamp down on the scandal that had — according to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders — reached the president.

During an interview with the Washington Times, Pruitt teased an “executive order” coming on Friday that would revise how the EPA regulates ambient air pollution like ozone and particulate matter. The standards, known as National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or NAAQS, are a key way the EPA can regulate air pollution from things like power plants or heavy-industry. Pollutants regulated under the NAAQS framework are pollutants that have been shown to pose serious risks to human health — from particulate pollution that could penetrate deep into lungs and exacerbate respiratory illness, to heavy metals like lead.

Pruitt has already made moves to weaken the EPA’s regulation of ozone under the NAAQS framework, announcing in June that he would delay the enforcement of stricter limits for ozone pollution for one year. It’s unclear what Pruitt’s announcement on Friday will cover, but it’s possible that it will be a similar delay or weakening of enforcement standards for a particular pollutant.


Over the last year, Pruitt has been one of the Trump administration’s most effective weapons, ruthlessly pursuing the president’s deregulatory agenda. During Pruitt’s first year as administrator, the agency finalized the rollback of 22 environmental rules, and undertook action on 44 more regulations — second only to the Department of Transportation in overall deregulatory actions taken by a federal agency under the Trump administration.

Many have pointed to Pruitt’s effectiveness, and loyalty to the Trump administration’s agenda, as a reason the administrator’s job is likely safe despite numerous ethical scandals. And as the White House — and the EPA’s own Office of Inspector General — look deeper into the scandals, it seems as if Pruitt is hoping to save his job by doing what he has historically done best: dismantle environmental regulations.

“We are getting things done and that’s what’s driving these folks crazy, and I will tell you, the truth and the facts are on our side,” Pruitt told the Washington Times. “And we’re just going to keep pushing and keep telling the story and trusting the American people get it.”