The Slatest

Pruitt Failed to Sabotage the EPA

His successor will be masterful at it.

Former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt walks during a picnic for military families on the South Lawn of the White House July 4, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt walks during a picnic for military families on the South Lawn of the White House July 4, 2018 in Washington, DC. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Getty Images

Scott Pruitt, the paranoid, scandal-plagued, flagrantly corrupt administrator of the Environment Protection Agency under Donald Trump, resigned on Thursday in the midst of 13 federal investigations into his pervasive misconduct. Pruitt’s resignation is certainly good news for those who believe that government officials should not flout the most basic ethical standards of public service. But will not be especially heartening to environmental activists, who may find the EPA to be even more effective at deregulation in Pruitt’s absence.

The cult of Pruitt—which kept him installed at the EPA through an unprecedented spree of outrageous impropriety—was built on the myth that he is a highly skilled and unusually effective deregulator. He promoted this reputation throughout his career, with help from media water-carriers, but it is comically overblown. Pruitt rose to prominence suing the federal government in his capacity as Oklahoma Attorney General to block Obama-era environmental protections. But as I explained in April, Pruitt didn’t do much work on these lawsuits. Rather, he frequently let lawyers for the oil, coal, and gas industries fight his battles, allowing them to literally ghostwrite his complaints. He also attached his name to the work produced by a coalition of Republicans, particularly former Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and his successor Ken Paxton. Pruitt got credit without actually taking the lead, parlaying his bit role into conservative celebrity.

His media defenders bought into this carefully curated self-image and continued to venerate Pruitt long after his corruption became apparent. Kimberley Strassel, Hugh Hewitt, and Mollie Hemingway wrote off the mounting scandals as a coordinated character assassination by liberals and the media. They continually justified his venality while disparaging anyone who dared question his probity. Pruitt’s only crime, they claimed, was his effectiveness. Liberals wanted him gone, and that was reason enough for Trump to keep him on.

This reasoning, however, rested on a faulty premise. Pruitt was not actually very good at his job. To the contrary, he was notably bad at it, and almost certainly set back Trump’s deregulatory agenda through his sloppy work. True, during his brief tenure, the EPA scrapped or rolled back dozens of environmental protections. But many were quite minor, and the centerpiece of his agenda—the repeal of Obama’s Clean Power Plan—was already guaranteed to be struck down by the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, several major items on his agenda were thwarted by the courts due in large part of Pruitt’s own slapdash approach. His attempt to repeal Obama’s landmark rule limiting methane emissions was blocked in court because he did not go through the proper rule-making process, maintaining an important limit on the potent greenhouse gas. His efforts to postpone stringent new restrictions on lead paint failed due to his inability to provide any good reason for the delay. And he could not put off stronger protections against smog because, again, he could not concoct an adequate explanation for his inaction.

Pruitt might have won any or all of these battles if he had mounted a competent defense for the EPA’s new stances or complied with the regulatory processes prescribed by federal law. Instead, he rushed headfirst into deregulation, crafting brazenly pretextual legal defenses as an afterthought. This tactic benefited him politically, but it was a terrible strategy, one that backfired badly in court as judges quickly perceived his fundamental lawlessness. Whatever his boosters in conservative media claim, Pruitt leaves behind a decidedly mixed legacy: He pushed through some deregulations but failed to topple a crown jewel of Obama’s EPA, the methane rule, thanks to his own ineptitude.

His successor probably won’t face the same problems. Acting EPA chief Andrew Wheeler shares Pruitt’s deregulatory passion but has none of the baggage or incompetence. He has spent much of his career lobbying on behalf of the energy industry and, in particular, coal companies, specializing in efforts to weaken federal regulations. Naturally, he doubts the existence of climate change. Wheeler is a Washington insider who has maintained a low-profile while helping to kill off regulatory burdens on fossil fuel producers and other industrial polluters.

Wheeler won’t hold press conferences to announce his latest deregulations. He won’t take lavish, first-class trips on the taxpayer’s dime. He won’t boast about his love of pollution and disdain for environmentalists. He will play by the rules and get the work done, quietly reshaping America’s environmental policy to benefit his friends in the energy industry. And soon, Trump and his supporters may find that they don’t miss Pruitt nearly as much as they thought they might.