The U.S. Senate is set to vote tomorrow on the nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General to head up the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and if it does, his confirmation will likely come easy. Senator Susan Collins of Maine said she’d vote no, but so far she’s the only Republican to make a clean break from her ranks. (Arizona Senator John McCain simply plans not to show up). Her vote will be counterbalanced by a yes vote from West Virginia’s Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat whose coal-country constituents hold government regulation wholly responsible for the decline of their industry (it isn’t).
North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp, another Democrat, will vote to confirm as well, hoping, she says, Pruitt will free energy producers from the “punitive” terms of the Clean Power Plan, EPA’s recent effort to reduce heat-trapping emissions from existing power plants. (The U.S. Supreme Court stayed the plan’s implementation last February; the agency’s defense of the plan on its website already reads like a relic of times past. [Let me know if that link rots; I’ve saved the page as a PDF]).
That’s two Democratic votes Pruitt doesn’t even need.
It’s not that Pruitt’s nomination has moved forward without controversy; EPA employees themselves have been pleading with senators to reject him. He’s sued the agency he’s set to lead more than a dozen times—hostile lawsuits, all of them—and has a known and well-documented unfriendliness toward any regulation that restrains industry. Today a federal judge ordered him to fork over thousands of emails he exchanged with energy industry representatives, emails he’d been withholding from a Center for Media and Democracy public records request for two years.
But he hasn’t engendered the kind of phone-jamming resistance that dogged Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during her nomination process. Unlike DeVos, Pruitt persuaded the Senate during his confirmation hearing that he actually possesses some expertise about the agency he’s been nominated to lead. And, unlike the activities of the Department of Education, the EPA’s purpose remains a mystery to much of the general public, even if they support environmental protection in theory.
So what will the EPA look like under Pruitt? One sure bet is that both civil and criminal prosecutions for environmental crimes will go down, as enforcement is largely discretionary. (Prosecutions are already at a low ebb, primarily a function of agency funding). Another is that less money will flow to states for clean air and climate programs, like clean trucks at ports, or solar panels on schools. The EPA will cease setting new standards for pollutants; the newly minted ozone standard might be relaxed; state-federal cleanup collaborations might slow down or stop altogether.
But dismantling the EPA, if that turns out to be Pruitt’s aim, won’t be easy. Patrick Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at the Vermont Law School, remembers President Ronald Reagan’s first EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch Buford (mother of Supreme Court nominee Neil), trying to hobble the agency in the early 1980s alongside then Interior Secretary James Watt. The courts held them back. “I watched them fumble and stumble and try to reverse their agency’s decisions,” Parenteau says. “They got challenged and they got beat. It’s not fun.”
Courts are likely to be equally skeptical of Pruitt’s challenges to the EPA’s mission. It’s worth noting, says Parenteau, that Pruitt has lost almost all of the cases he’s brought against the environment agency throughout his career.
Which is not to say environmental protection won’t suffer under Pruitt; on the enforcement issue alone, it will. “You’re losing the leverage,” says Parenteau. “You’re chasing the gorilla out of the closet. We can go back in time and see what it looked like without a strong EPA. Fish were dying and rivers were catching on fire. None of it’s good.”
D.C. rally to oppose Scott Pruitt’s nomination, February 16, 2017, by Lorie Shaull on Flickr