Scott Pruitt nowhere to be seen near Trump as president orders rollback of air quality rules

Administration seeks to reduce regulatory burdens on U.S. manufacturers.

Toxic smoke blows over downtown Long Beach, California from a fire at the Tosco oil refinery in Carson, 15 miles south of Los Angeles. CREDIT: David McNew/Newsmakers
Toxic smoke blows over downtown Long Beach, California from a fire at the Tosco oil refinery in Carson, 15 miles south of Los Angeles. CREDIT: David McNew/Newsmakers

With lawmakers and environmental groups distracted by scandals surrounding Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt, President Donald Trump on Thursday quietly issued a memo that promises to bring cheer to his supporters who lead the nation’s most polluting industries.

The Trump order aims to change the way the EPA determines whether states are meeting federal air-quality standards. Environmental groups argue the order imposes measures that will allow more air pollution, or shortened air quality reviews that risk more air pollution.

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Over the past year, Trump has frequently made his climate and environmental rule rollback announcements with great pomp and circumstance. Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement was announced in the White House Rose Garden to great fanfare.

In February 2017, surrounded by coal miners and West Virginia politicians at the White House, Trump signed legislation that nullified a regulation prohibiting surface-mining operations from dumping waste in nearby waterways.

But Trump issued his memo on Thursday with none of the fanfare that had accompanied previous environmental rollback orders.

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Trump originally was scheduled to appear with Pruitt to sign the order last week, according to the Washington Post. But that event was canceled due to the barrage of news reports about Pruitt’s alleged ethics violations and corruption. On Thursday, Pruitt tweeted about the order, but was nowhere to be seen near the president, the Post reported Thursday.

The memo — titled “Promoting Domestic Manufacturing and Job Creation: Policies and Procedures Relating to Implementation of Air Quality Standards” — directs Pruitt’s EPA to to more quickly review states’ smog-reduction plans, make it easier for businesses to get air quality-related permits, and to evaluate health-based smog and soot standards to determine whether they “should be revised or rescinded.”

Although Pruitt did not make an appearance at the White House to announce the changes, he did issue a statement on Thursday about the memo. “This memorandum helps ensure that EPA carries out its core mission, while reducing regulatory burdens for domestic manufacturing,” Pruitt said.

In a statement issued Thursday, the White House said aspects of the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) program are outdated, inefficient, and in need of reform. The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set NAAQS for “criteria pollutants,” which include carbon monoxide, lead, ground-level ozone, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide. The EPA is required by law to review these standards every five years.

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Over the years, these air quality standards have become more stringent. As a result, manufacturers have experienced delays in obtaining air permits needed to build new facilities or expand existing ones, the White House said.

Adopting one of Pruitt’s favorite talking points — “core mission” — Trump stated the actions he is ordering “are intended to ensure that EPA carries out its core missions of protecting the environment and improving air quality in accord with statutory requirements, while reducing unnecessary impediments to new manufacturing and business expansion essential for a growing economy.”

Environmentalists, however, warned the president’s order is another example of how the Trump administration is creating conditions that will allow for increased air pollution. They also questioned the legality of Trump’s mandates.

“With a cloud of scandal whirling around Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump and Pruitt just stooped to a new low with this latest attack on the Clean Air Act on behalf of corporate polluters,” Mary Anne Hitt, senior director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said Thursday in a statement.

Trump’s order could lead to major changes in how science is used to set clean air rules. According to Hitt, it will allow the EPA to “bypass important scientific work that keeps millions of communities’ air clean, and it sets in motion a clear ploy to weaken the latest science-based smog pollution standard.”

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By directing the EPA to reconsider all of its past guidance for the NAAQS program, Trump is “threatening clean air protections for cities across the country,” Sara Jordan, legislative representative for the League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement.

“This is yet another example of this administration selling out our future to industry polluters — it’s nothing more than a naked attempt to attack science, gut our clean air protections, and put polluter profits ahead of our health,” Jordan said.

Trump’s order will allow companies that want to pollute in an area where the air already violates federal standards to get a permit by obtaining offset credits from a firm in an entirely different area. “The courts have said on more than one occasion that the Clean Air Act does not allow that,” Janet McCabe, who headed the EPA’s air quality office under the Obama administration, told the Los Angeles Times.

The order requires the EPA to speed up reviews of state plans to reduce air pollution, setting a strict 18-month deadline, and complete reviews of all pre-construction permits for industry within a year.

Trump also called on the EPA to give more weight to pollution blown in from overseas. “International and background sources of air pollution are critical issues facing state, local, and tribal agencies implementing national standards,” Pruitt said.

The Sierra Club vowed it will not stand for any new process that weakens clean air safeguards. “We will work with our allies to combat any polluter giveaways that Scott Pruitt and Donald Trump have planned,” Hitt said. “As Pruitt’s scandals become more outrageous, we will keep fighting to make sure our environmental and public health laws are fully enforced.”