Pruitt at CPAC: EPA should do more to clean up Superfund sites, but maybe lacks authority on climate change

If Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt wants you to know one thing from his appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference, it’s that, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” He’s not complaining. After all, he’s the future.

Pruitt quoted either Yogi Berra or Meat Loaf a lot in his short speech yesterday. More illuminating was the follow-up, a sit-down interview with Dr. Gina Loudon (LinkedIn says she’s got a Ph.D. from Santa Barbara’s Fielding University in “Counseling Education Human Development; Human and Organizational Systems”).

A bubbly, giggly #DrGina tossed her hair around the shoulders her blue dress left bare as she asked for a show of hands from the CPAC audience: “How may of you kind of hope that Administrator Pruitt will just sort of make the EPA go away?” Then she asked Pruitt how that felt. “It’s justified.”

Here’s five quick takeaways from their Q&A.

  1. Pruitt’s top priority is regulatory certainty for business.
    I’m not sure when this became EPA’s mission specifically, but he says that regulation has impeded business growth, and fixing that is his first-100-days top priority. “It’s agencies making it up as they go. It’s agencies acting in away that says, the statute says one thing but we’re going to do exactly the opposite. That cannot continue,” he said. “We have to send a message across the country that we’re going to provide certainty by living within the framework that Congress has passed. So we’re going to see regulations roll back.”
    Dr. Gina tried to make a baseball analogy as she asked about Pruitt’s strategy for that, asking whether he’d be aiming for big rollbacks, or a lot of them. She wondered if he was going to be more like Mickey Mantle, the Oklahoma-born home run leader, or more like Pete Rose, the all-time hits leader? Pruitt’s answer: “It’s good to do both, right? It’s good to hit a few out of the park and it’s good to move the ball down the field, in football, as well.”
    But maybe because of the complexity of unwinding regulations—a huge pile of which will require more regulatory process to eliminate—the named list of offending regulations remains short. The Clean Power Plan (which aimed at cutting greenhouse gases from power plants), the methane rule (which limited when oil and gas producers could burn off a gas that contributes heavily to a warming climate), and a rule expanding what’s defined as the Waters of the United States. “The previous administration took the Waters of the United States rule and transformed the Clean Water Act, and made puddles and dry creek beds subject to the jurisdiction of Washington DC,” he said.
  2. He keeps raising questions about whether EPA is empowered to address climate change.
    By no stretch of the imagination could you say Dr. Gina grilled Pruitt, but she did know her audience, many of whom don’t believe people contribute to climate change. So she asked how, exactly, people are responsible. “Well, we don’t know. And that’s the difficulty in this issue,” he answered, “because to measure with precision that impact is something very difficult to do.” But then he pivoted. “There’s a whole ‘nother part of the equation that’s not being asked. If it is happening, what can Congress and what can the administrative state do about it?”
    De-emphasizing denial of the evidence of climate change, he favors a new frame: the proper roles of the executive and legislative branches. “If the tools aren’t in the tool box – if Congress hasn’t spoken on the issue, agencies just can’t make it up.”
    His governmental philosophy isn’t new, but what he told the Senate last month in his confirmation hearing was quite different. To Bernie Sanders, he said, “I believe the EPA has a very important role at regulating the emissions of CO2.” And he repeatedly said he’d respect the 2009 science-backed finding by EPA that greenhouse gas pollution endangers human health.
  3. Not surprisingly, he believes environmental policy can be business friendly…
    “I think when we have a mutually exclusive kind of approach — that if you’re pro-energy you’re anti-environment, when you’re pro-environment, you’re anti-energy — what that means is that we’ve put on jerseys,” he said. “We as a nation are better than that.”
    Pruitt added that the United States could be better than India, China, and developing nations because “we grow jobs; we see jobs in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania – and we also take care of our air, our water; we also take care of our children.”
  4. …but incongruously, Pruitt singled out Superfund as something requiring EPA’s attention.
    “We have over 1,300 Superfund sites across the country,” Pruitt said, dramatically. “Those are sites that have been put on the National Priorities List like the one in Portland, Oregon that literally have been—the communities there have had water issues with respect to the Hanover Nuclear Facility for three or more decades. The EPA hasn’t cleaned it up!” A climate focus, he said, has meant that “some of those other priorities were left behind.”
    I’m very curious to see how Pruitt’s going to make Superfund cleanups a priority.
    Superfund sites exist because of polluters. Polluters are businesses. Businesses fight their liability for pollution, squabble for decades over who’s responsible for what, declare bankruptcy to avoid paying money on these sites, and drag their feet when writing multi-million dollar checks. The enduring lesson of Superfund is: cleanups aren’t free.
  5. Rollbacks are coming, but there are budgetary questions too.
    Pruitt promised a big week ahead on rollbacks, but he wouldn’t commit to slashing EPA’s budget; “I’ve only been there since Tuesday,” he said. Still, about how his agency spends its money, “you’ve got your hands full,” said Dr. Gina. She faux-incredulously listed EPA grants that conservatives felt deserved some scrutiny – from $84,000 to the University of Michigan on the effectiveness of using churches to promote environmentalism, which got a big boo, to $1.5 million given to the University of Colorado to study pollution from cooking stoves in Africa (“That’s a good use of tax dollars,” Dr. Gina rolled her eyes), to money given to the University of California Riverside to study “emissions from evil barbecue grills.” No pile of money is too small for EPA’s opponents to criticize, and the message is: nothing is safe. The future ain’t what it used to be, indeed.

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