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.