Interrogation

“More About Bluster Than He Was About Actual Achievement”

What Christine Todd Whitman, EPA administrator under George W. Bush, thinks about Scott Pruitt—and the threat to the environment the agency still poses.

Christine Todd Whitman at a clear podium.
Christine Todd Whitman speaks at an event in Miami on Nov. 17, 2015.
Aaron Davidson/Getty Images for Eisenhower Fellowships

On Thursday, the Trump White House pressured Scott Pruitt into resigning from his job as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt had kept his position for nearly 18 months despite a staggering number of scandals and, in the end, even criticism from Republicans. Pruitt’s deregulatory agenda, however, was cheered on by the president, and will almost certainly be continued by his deputy now running the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist. One of the Republicans who criticized Pruitt was Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey who ran the agency during part of George W. Bush’s first term. In an op-ed last September, she wrote that she considered some of Pruitt’s moves to end regulations “legally questionable,” posing “real and lasting threats to the nation’s land, air, water, and public health.”

I recently spoke by phone with Whitman, the founder of the energy and environmental consulting firm Whitman Strategy Group. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the effect Scott Pruitt had on EPA morale, the Bush administration’s role in undermining faith in the science of climate change, and the myth that environmental protection and a good economy cannot go hand in hand.

Isaac Chotiner: What is Scott Pruitt’s EPA legacy?

Christine Todd Whitman: I think unfortunately that his legacy is one of one scandal after another. He has had more investigations than anyone else I can think of. And dismantling the agency. But that is going to be a legacy of the Trump administration as much as Scott Pruitt. He was just carrying out the wishes of the president.

What did you hear about Pruitt from people at the EPA?

They were discouraged, they were frustrated, they felt as if he had no trust in them. He didn’t talk to anybody except a very few, and the morale was extremely low.

What is the effect of having someone like that at the top of an agency? How does low morale manifest itself?

The effect is that people lose momentum, they are frustrated because they don’t dare raise issues, because if they raise issues that might be contrary, or have an opinion that might differ even slightly from what the administrator wants to hear, they will be assigned to someplace they don’t want to be, or some part of the agency where they have no experience. Getting sent out to Slobbovia is the sort of thing they worry about. What they told me is, “You don’t take on a new issue. You don’t bring up something that might require more regulation if you think it is a danger to health or the environment. Just stay quiet, and you are careful with what you say and how you say it and where you say it.”

Do you know Andrew Wheeler?

Not really. I have met him and our paths have crossed, but I do not know him personally.

What have you heard about his time at the EPA so far?

He is very different from Scott Pruitt, and he is much more low-key. He will get along better. The issue I have is that because of that, and because he knows the agency much better than Scott Pruitt did—and Scott Pruitt didn’t really know the agency at all except to hate it and sue it every five minutes when he was attorney general [of Oklahoma]. He didn’t really understand how it worked, and the complications of it. Andrew Wheeler does, which means he can be more effective at rolling back regulations. And from my perspective, that is much more problematic. Scott Pruitt was more about bluster than he was about actual achievement.

Are there specific policies or rollbacks you are particularly worried about right now?

Clean water, clean air. I worry very much about those continuing to be rolled back. They are being attacked in a way to favor the coal industry, and with Andrew Wheeler, you are going to get more than that. The problem is that by rolling back some of these restrictions—particularly as they apply to water—it is not going to bring back coal [as Trump has repeatedly promised to do]. Coal is dying not because of these regulations, but because of the low cost of natural gas. If you allow coal companies to dump tailings near water supplies, you are endangering the lives—the life—of all those who live downstream from them. Coal tailings have arsenic, they have lead, they have mercury in them. It’s not good. And it’s not going to bring back coal. And that worries me.

Rolling back the tailpipe emissions. We know between 200,000 and 300,000 people in the United States die every year from dirty airborne-related causes. Tailpipes are one of the largest sources of emissions, and yet now all of a sudden we are pulling back on regulations that the car companies have anticipated and built up for. Now the car companies are saying, do we go ahead of this? Do we not go ahead with it? What do we do? That, again, is not good for human health. In the long term, we are the ones who pay the price.

Do you have any hope for the GOP becoming more of an environmentally friendly party?

There are certainly a lot of Republicans who are fighting for that, and several very active groups of Republicans working on solving problems like climate change, and trying to re-establish in people’s minds the importance of science, and that we need to listen to science, which is something that Scott Pruitt and this administration was dismissing in many circumstances. So they are there, but right now it’s clear that Donald Trump and Trump supporters control the apparatus of the Republican Party. And that’s not going to change fast.

I know you were considered one of the more environmentally-friendly members of the Bush administration, but what role do you think that administration played in the relationship between the GOP and science. George W. Bush did not speak up about climate change, for instance.

Unfortunately, we started down this path where we weren’t going to recognize climate change. But there was no war on science the way there was in this administration. The Bush administration at least recognized the importance. When we had science advisory boards, it was a regulation aimed at a particular industry, that industry would have a representative on the science advisory panel, but they were not the dominant members. Scientists were. There was a skepticism about climate change, but actually, interestingly enough, the president himself wasn’t as skeptical as some members of the administration and the Hill, and you pick the battles you are going to fight and that just wasn’t one of the ones that they chose to take on. And the vice president was clearly a strong influence in that as well.

Is your sense that on issues like climate change, people in Republican politics really don’t believe the science, or do but think it will hurt the economy or whatever?

The general public, in every poll I have ever seen, shows that a majority of the American people, including Republicans, believe that the climate is changing and that humans have an impact. And they are also prepared to have some actions taken if they think it can be sensible. In general, if you ask an open-ended question about what are the most important issues, science is not one of the ones listed, and that’s primarily not because people don’t care about clean air and water and a healthy lifestyle, but because, they wonder, “What can I do about it? This is a such a huge issue. I am going to leave that to the experts.” And trying to get people to understand the cumulative impact of human behavior is difficult. It’s not impossible, but it’s difficult.

OK, but in terms of Republican politicians and leaders, do you think they really doubt the science, or just think it’s bad for business?

It’s not bad for business. It’s bad for politics. This is all about politics. On both sides. It’s not about solving a problem or addressing a real issue. It’s about what is going to get me another vote in my caucus. This is an easy issue to grandstand because it involves some form of regulation, and regulations are easy to hate because they cause people to have to change behavior or spend money on a problem they may not see [as existing].

We know this idea that you cannot have a thriving economy and a clean and green economy is just not true. Between 1985 and 2012, we saw the population in the United States increase by over 20 percent. We saw energy demands increase by over 30 percent. We saw our real GDP almost double. And yet we were able to reduce the six “criteria air pollutants” by over 67 percent. So, you had more people demanding more energy while growing the economy and reducing pollution. We have done it. We can do it. Do some industries get dislocated for a period of time? Yes, that happens. But does that stop economic growth? No. It doesn’t and it hasn’t. So, it’s really just politics. It seems to be scare tactics that are the ones people use the most these days.