Whenever Scott Pruitt, the new administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is pressed on his plans to dismantle the agency’s rules and regulations, he falls back on an easy excuse: The statute made me do it.
That’s what happened last weekend, when Pruitt went onto Fox News Sunday. Chris Wallace, the show’s longtime host, asked him how he would achieve the public-health benefits of the Clean Power Plan while the rule was out of force. According to the EPA, the Clean Power Plan would avert 90,000 asthma attacks and 3,600 premature deaths per year; President Trump ordered that the plan be reviewed and weakened last week.
“You think doing away with the Clean Power Plan is going to improve air quality, which you say is a major goal?” asked Wallace.
“Look, Chris—what we have to keep in mind is that the EPA only possesses the authority that Congress gives it. And the EPA has tried twice to regulate CO₂,” Pruitt said. “As much as we want to see progress on clean air and clean water, with an understanding that we can also grow jobs, we have to do so within the framework that Congress has passed. The tools have to be in the toolbox.”
Wallace wasn’t having it. “You’re giving me a regulatory answer, a political answer,” he said at one point. “You’re not giving a health answer.”
Pruitt again replied that he was rolling back the EPA’s regulatory overreach, and Wallace moved on to asking about Pruitt’s climate-change denialism. (The Washington Post has a longer account of the incredible interview.)
This is how many conversations with Pruitt have gone. When pressed on his plan to reverse or weaken the EPA’s environmental rules, Pruitt says that he is merely following the law. During his confirmation hearing, for instance, he granted that “the climate is changing,” but then pivoted: “The job of administrator is to carry out statutes as passed by this body. In response to the CO₂ issue, the EPA administrator is constrained by statutes.”
Pruitt may be right that aspects of the Clean Power Plan run afoul of the Clean Air Act and the Constitution. Certainly many conservative legal experts and a few high-profile liberals agree with him. Last winter, the Supreme Court did take the unprecedented step of staying the plan, rendering it essentially inactive until the legal challenges against it were resolved. (At the same time, the high court has been extremely clear that the EPA does possess the authority to regulate carbon dioxide.)
But the Clean Power Plan was written as it was for a reason. The EPA only issued the rule after President Obama failed to get a climate law through Congress. After Republicans took back the House in 2010, the path for climate legislation was closed off. From Obama’s perspective, the great benefit of the Clean Power Plan was that it let him do something to mitigate climate change. For this reason, it had to respect the boundaries of the Clean Air Act as passed.
Pruitt seems to think he has the same problem. He tells the Senate (wrongly) that the EPA doesn’t have much authority to regulate greenhouse gases. He talks about the need to use only the legal “tools in the toolbox.” His interview with Wallace even suggests that Pruitt believes the EPA’s guiding statutes prohibit him from protecting public health.
But Pruitt isn’t in the same pickle as Obama. He is a Republican EPA administrator, working for a Republican president, serving alongside a Republican-controlled House and Senate. He can do something that Gina McCarthy, his predecessor at the EPA, could not.
Edward Scott Pruitt, you are a very lucky man: You can go to Congress whenever you want! If you need a new regulatory tool, you can seek its lawmaking hammer and anvil. If you believe that the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act prohibit you from preventing thousands of premature deaths and asthma attacks per year, it may be your duty to tell Congress exactly what’s standing in your statutory way.
Pruitt might find quick success in this endeavor. Environmental legislation is popular among Americans of all parties. Pew finds that most Americans favor stricter environmental policy. And according to a new Quinnipiac University poll, three-quarters of Americans are concerned about climate change. If Trump truthfully wanted to work with Democrats, strengthening environmental statutes is a great place to start.
Alternatively, Pruitt may not want to strengthen national environmental policy. He may instead be leaning on the statutory excuse—or even believe that the federal government should play basically no role in regulating pollutants, be they conventional or climate-changing. This would be a less popular position, but would also be one one borne out by his record: As Oklahoma attorney general, he sued the EPA 14 times, challenging EPA rules about mercury and ozone.
If Pruitt does embrace this alternative view, he should articulate it and his rationale for it instead of arguing that he’s hamstrung by the law. Either way, next time he’s being interviewed on television, for example, holding to his stated view about statutory stubbornness, his interviewer would serve viewers well by ask him asking him: How do you think Congress should fix the problem?
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