What EPA chief Scott Pruitt promised — and what he’s done.

Scott Pruitt. Getty Images

For Scott Pruitt, “back to basics” has translated to “back off.”

The Environmental Protection Agency administrator came into office promising to discard his predecessor’s “overreaching” focus on climate change and concentrate on what he called the agency’s real mission: cleaning up the air, water and land.


But instead, Pruitt has rolled back or stalled environmental protections, given the fossil fuel and chemistry industries more sway over public health decisions and taken steps that critics fear will undermine work on pollution cleanups, according to a POLITICO analysis of what he’s accomplished to date. He says he will be tough on environmental crimes, but his agency is also easing up on enforcement and collecting far less in penalties than previous administrations, according to agency watchdogs.

Pruitt is the most unorthodox EPA administrator in decades, an avowed critic of the agency who has alienated much of his career staff. He’s spent heavily on travel to meet with business executives and GOP leaders, who want to see a much weaker EPA and could back Pruitt in a future political campaign. He has declined to disclose his daily schedule, employs a large entourage of bodyguards and built a “privacy booth” for communications in his office. He has questioned manmade climate change and kicked respected scientists off his advisory boards, replacing them with representatives from the businesses and the states he regulates.

Obama and Trump’s EPAs compared

Actions the Environmental Protection Agency took during the first eight months of the Obama and Trump administrations reflect the differing priorities of each presidency.

Type of action 2009 2017
Delay or withdrawal 14 47
Significant proposed rules* 19 2
Significant final rules 15 6
Action on state cleanup plans 213 378
Declarations that areas met or missed standards 28 33
Superfund decisions 54 37

Source: POLITICO analysis of Federal Register data from Jan. 21-Sept. 25 in 2009 and 2017

Still, Pruitt, who regularly references his Christian faith, says God wants people to be stewards of the earth. And an agency spokesman said that so far, Pruitt has visited more than 25 states, taken action on major Obama-era regulations and the nation’s most-polluted sites, and increased the number of EPA enforcement agents, which had declined under the previous administration.

“We’re only 10 months on the job and eight years from today, Americans will be impressed with how President Trump and Administrator Pruitt were able to protect the environment and American jobs,” said EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox.

But Judith Enck, a New York-based regional EPA administrator under former President Barack Obama, said Pruitt’s rhetoric doesn’t match his record.


“You can’t have clean air and you can’t have clean water if you’re going to roll back crucial environmental rules and not enforce the rules we have on the book,” said Enck, who recently returned from seeing hurricane damage in the Virgin Islands. “We’ll see the effects very soon.”

To get beyond the rhetoric and competing claims, POLITICO compared EPA’s Federal Register filings for the first eight months of the Trump administration with the same period for Obama’s presidency in 2009. They show a significant increase in how often the agency has withdrawn or delayed regulations this year, along with a decrease in new regulations. The data also show that Pruitt has sped up approvals of state plans to battle air pollution — a fact that his allies consider a sign of progress, but which environmentalists cite as evidence that he is rubber-stamping lax plans.

Enforcing years-old air pollution standards

Congress has instructed EPA to periodically consider tightening standards for pollutants like smog-forming ozone and lung-damaging soot, based on the latest science about their effects on human health. EPA is in charge of setting national standards and evaluating states’ plans to reach them.

But Pruitt said he wants to meet older air quality rules, like the George W. Bush administration’s weaker 2008 ozone standard, before focusing on more recent ones. He has not announced which regions have failed to meet the 2015 standard, delaying a years-long process for enforcing those limits.


Clean up air pollution

Pruitt often praises the improvements in U.S. air quality since the Clean Air Act was passed in the early 1970s. But he also says Obama should have done more to meet existing standards before issuing newer, tighter limits on pollutants, such as a 2015 ozone standard that drew opposition from business groups.

In Pruitt’s own words

“One-hundred-twenty million people in this country live in areas that don’t meet air quality standards. That’s what the previous administration left us with,” Pruitt told a Heritage Foundation event in October.

In line with his promise

  • Plans to keep EPA’s existing standards for nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, which cause respiratory problems and acid rain.
  • Advanced or approved a higher number of state implementation plans for cutting pollution than the Obama administration did in its first eight months.

Not in line

He has also criticized Obama’s EPA for rejecting state implementation plans that the agency deemed to be too lax, complaining that it demonstrated a “we know best” attitude in Washington.

Pruitt’s EPA has signed off on 378 actions related to state plans as of Sept. 25, compared with 213 during the same period under Obama.

But Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer John Walke said those numbers may show that EPA is rushing to sign off on weak plans, rather than ensuring that the states are putting in place sufficient protections. For example, environmentalists complained after EPA released a plan in October to reduce haze-forming emissions from Texas power plants that they said was “drastically” weaker than the Obama administration’s initial proposal.

State and local regulators want to comply with current air standards, said Miles Keogh, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, but they also need federal money to do so. The White House has suggested slashing those funds, although Congress is likely to keep them at or near last year’s level.

Supercharging Superfund?

Pruitt’s actions could be seen as speeding up the cleanup at polluted sites, but environmental advocates say they are toothless and could actually hurt the overall effort.

“The top 10 list, which he claimed would accelerate cleanups, actually entails taking money from some cleanups and putting it in other cleanups,” said Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategic planning at the Environmental Defense Fund.


Clean up Superfund sites

EPA has logged more than 1,300 hazardous waste sites into its Superfund program, many of them decades old. Polluters typically pay for cleanup as part of legal agreements with EPA. When they don’t, taxpayers are on the hook.

In Pruitt’s own words

“The American people deserve, in my view, leadership on how to remediate those sites. That’s some of the most tangible benefits we can provide folks environmentally,” Pruitt said at the Heritage event. “We have more sites now than when President Obama came into office.”

That “opens the door to lobbyists trying to push for attention for one site versus another,” Holstein said.

The Superfund program is famously problematic, largely because it lacks money for cleanups. Congress has been reluctant to hand over more money for the cases when EPA can’t force polluters to pay. Trump’s proposed budget cuts would worsen that situation.

Pruitt frequently criticizes Obama’s EPA for adding more sites to the Superfund list than it cleaned up. He also points out that past administrations from both parties have been slow to act on some sites, such as the West Lake landfill near St. Louis, which holds thousands of tons of radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project. It was added to the Superfund list in 1990, but EPA has yet to determine how to clean it up.

The Obama administration cleaned up and delisted 60 Superfund sites and added 142 sites over eight years. So far under Pruitt, EPA has deleted two sites and added seven.

Cleaning up drinking water — but where’s the money?

Adam Krantz, CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which oversee wastewater and stormwater systems, said he hasn’t seen Pruitt or his agency have a “rapid or deep desire to change or roll back major regulations that really affect our members.”


Upgrade water infrastructure and promote clean water

Pruitt has highlighted the lead contamination in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, as the type of disaster his agency aims to prevent.

In Pruitt’s own words

“We have a water infrastructure issue right now across this country. It’s not just roads and bridges,” Pruitt told a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in March.

Trump has pushed a $1 trillion plan to revamp the nation’s infrastructure over a decade that could funnel funds to water infrastructure, although the White House has offered few details on how it intends to pay for that package and get it through Congress. Based on suggestions the administration has released so far, about 80 percent of the money would come from private parties or state or local governments.

Undoing Obama’s climate agenda

Pruitt has discounted the science showing that manmade emissions are the primary cause of climate change and argued that EPA overstepped its authority with Obama’s Clean Power Plan. He has long been a backer of fossil fuels, and the oil and gas industry supported his campaigns in Oklahoma.

“God has blessed us with natural resources,” Pruitt told POLITICO in July. “Let’s use them to feed the world. Let’s use them to power the world. Let’s use them to protect the world.”


Halt climate regulations and challenge the scientific research behind global warming

As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt fought EPA’s climate regulations for the power sector. Now, he’s proposed withdrawing the standards, saying the Obama EPA overreached its legal authority. He disagrees with the accepted science that human activities, mainly burning fossil fuels, are the main cause of the planet’s warming, increased extreme weather and sea-level rise.

In Pruitt’s own words

On climate change: “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact,” Pruitt told CNBC. “So no, I would not agree that [carbon dioxide is] a primary contributor to the global warming that we see. But we don’t know that yet, we need to continue to debate, continue the review and analysis.”

In line with his promise

Not in line

Pruitt hasn’t committed to replacing the Clean Power Plan or ruled out the possibility of trying to overturn a years-old legal finding that requires EPA to curb greenhouse gas emissions. He wants to publicly debate the science, which many industry supporters fear would be a losing and embarrassing effort.


Meanwhile, Pruitt’s Clean Power Plan repeal is facing lawsuits from states and environmental groups, which say he won’t have the final word.

“The second step here is a final [withdrawal] that survives legal challenges,” Walke, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said of the effort to eliminate the Clean Power Plan. “Scott Pruitt has not had any of those yet. Let’s wait and see how successful he is.”

The power sector’s greenhouse gas emissions have been declining even without Obama’s climate rule. But those emissions represent less than one third of total U.S. carbon pollution, and Pruitt has not taken steps to curb greenhouse gases from other industries.

Pledging more ‘respect’ for states and businesses

Pruitt has touted his outreach to businesses and states, which he says bear the brunt of EPA regulations but were shut out of the process under Obama. He’s gotten mixed reviews from the states themselves, whose responses are largely divided along party lines.

Dan Byers, vice president of policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, lauded Pruitt’s approach but said it’s too early to tell whether his moves to relax regulations will succeed.


Put more responsibility for environmental protection in the hands of states and businesses

Pruitt has described EPA’s past efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution as overreaching, “arrogant” and “paternalistic.” He has called for states to have a bigger role in carrying out federal environment laws, although his agency’s budget proposal would cut much of the federal money they rely on.

In Pruitt’s own words

On states: “Where the past administration missed it is they didn’t respect the role of states. … They saw them as adversaries as opposed to partners. That’s just wrongheaded,” Pruitt said in an October interview. On regulating companies: “There aren’t enough people that this agency can hire to stand on every corner in this country to look over the shoulder of all these companies and say ‘do this’ or ‘do that.’ What we have to have are people who are committed to care about outcomes. … Most of those folks do,” Pruitt said in an interview with Time.

In line with his promise

Not in line

  • Supports a White House budget proposal that would nix almost 20 percent of funding that helps states pay for environmental projects and staff.
  • Is carrying out further staffing cuts, including the potential for closing certain regional offices, all of which would may make outreach harder.

Under Obama, there was “at least a sense that we would have a nice polite meeting, but that feedback was moot because the path had already been decided,” Byers said. “Now there’s a feeling of a true partnership.”

Similarly, Julia Anastasio, executive director of the Association of Clean Water Administrators, said Pruitt’s approach with states is “refreshing.” Her members thought previous administrations treated the EPA-state dynamic like a “parent-child relationship,” rather than a “co-partnership or collaboration of equals,” she said.

But Pruitt’s outreach has been selective: He has almost exclusively visited Republican states, making media appearances with GOP governors, including Nebraska’s Pete Ricketts, who said his state was “ecstatic” about the withdrawal of the Waters of the U.S. rule.

Sen. Tom Carper also noted in an August letter to Pruitt that EPA’s grant database showed awards to Democratic-leaning states — including Delaware, Massachusetts and California — had declined compared with 2016. EPA has not yet responded to that letter, according to a Carper spokeswoman.

Democratic-led states, meanwhile, plan to go to court to fight many of Pruitt’s anti-regulatory plans.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said he’s concerned Pruitt’s actions are already causing real damage.

“I think it’s having a really major impact and it’s really discouraging,” Beyer said in an interview. “I just can’t wait for these next three years and three months to be up.”

Anthony Adragna contributed to this report. Development by Lily Mihalik.