Even a more conservative federal judiciary would not rubber-stamp many of Pruitt’s proposed new rules, Adler told me. As such, he said, Pruitt’s successor would need to take a more process-based approach to rolling back Obama rules. “The question is whether or not Wheeler takes a more slow and deliberate pace,” he said. “That is the way you achieve lasting policy change, short of legislation.”
Some environmental advocates agreed. “The first year of Mr. Pruitt’s tenure was marked by reckless abandon seeking to reverse everything that the Obama EPA had done,” said John Walke, the director of the federal clean air, climate, and energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “He faced defeat after defeat in court because of his deep mistrust for career staff who could have guided him.”
Most of these defeats have concerned small rule changes. Pruitt’s large-scale rollbacks of Obama-era policy have yet to be committed to law by the EPA. “Those proposals have not been finalized. And the second crucial step, inevitable lawsuits and judicial review, has not yet been initiated, much less completed,” Walke said.
He told me that Pruitt’s hasty legal work was unlikely to survive judicial review or a future administration, but that whether the Trump administration will make its mark on environmental policy was a more “open question.”
“Pruitt’s successors will undoubtedly continue most if not all of the rollbacks initiated by Mr. Pruitt, because that’s in line with the president’s harmful agenda for the EPA,” Walke said. But he wondered if Wheeler would stop implementing some Pruitt-led rules that he deemed “especially venal or motivated by an extreme ideology.”
Some of Wheeler’s former coworkers speculated along similar lines to Axios. They argued that Wheeler might leave a few more Obama-era rules in place, such as one that forbade tractor-trailer manufacturers from skirting pollution rules by placing an old diesel engine in a new truck body. The trucking industry largely supports the rule, but one Tennessee-based truck dealership reportedly lobbied Pruitt to reverse it.
There’s no doubt that Pruitt has overseen one of the most environmentally skeptical EPAs in history. His only competitor is Anne Gorsuch Burford, who served as President Reagan’s first EPA administrator in the early 1980s. Public and congressional scorn eventually forced her out of office, too.
And though she downsized the agency, her legal legacy was a Supreme Court ruling that ultimately increased the EPA’s power. (Though that case may soon be reversed by her son, Neil, who sits on the Supreme Court.)
Perhaps Pruitt’s legacy will resemble hers. Certainly his political story already does. “Scott Pruitt shot himself in the foot so many times it’s like he had a vendetta against the hapless appendage,” Walke told me. “At the end of the day, Administrator Pruitt brought himself down through his own missteps and misdeeds.”