EPA Chief Pruitt Resigns Amid Scandals, Ex-Coal Lobbyist to Take Over

Pruitt tried to lead Trump's assault on environmental policy and climate science, but even there he had a shaky record and ethics scandals kept piling up.

Scott Pruitt, EPA administrator under President Trump. Credit: Justin Merriman/Getty Images

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt wrote in his resignation letter to President Trump: "Truly, your confidence in me has blessed me personally and enabled me to advance your agenda beyond what anyone anticipated at the beginning of your administration." Credit: Justin Merriman/Getty Images

Scott Pruitt resigned as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday, his tenure as deregulatory crusader cut short amid a cascade of revelations about his misuse of his office and flouting of ethical standards.

President Donald Trump announced the resignation via Twitter, offering no reason for the decision and praising Pruitt's work at EPA. He said Pruitt's deputy, former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, will take the helm of the agency. (Read more about Wheeler and concerns raised at his confirmation hearing.)

"Within the Agency Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this," Trump wrote.

 

Pruitt's critics expressed exasperation that his resignation came only after months of mounting evidence of misuse of his office.

"That this took so long shows how high the Trump administration's tolerance is for corruption and sleaze," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). "The sad part is that it was the cascade of little sleazy acts that brought Pruitt down, not his overarching corruption by fossil fuel interests."

Pruitt's Shaky Policy Record

Pruitt faced more than a dozen investigations for his actions within the agency, including misuse of taxpayer funds for security and first-class travel, detailing EPA personnel to find him housing and search for employment for his wife, and re-assigning or demoting staffers who questioned him.

If judged by the standard of whether he achieved Trump's agenda to dramatically roll back the agency's mission, and in particular to retreat from action on climate change, Pruitt leaves behind a shaky record:

  • EPA's 2009 finding that greenhouse gases are a danger to human health and the environment, the basis for the agency's regulation of carbon emissions, still stands.
     
  • Federal courts have clamped down on Pruitt's efforts to take deregulatory short-cuts, most notably by blocking his effort to fast-track repeal of methane rules for oil and gas facilities.
     
  • Pruitt's own science advisers have called for a formal review of a number of his actions, including the agency's new lowball estimates on the social cost of carbon and a proposal to restrict EPA use of science, including human health studies, in its decision making.
     
  • And although Trump, as candidate, vowed to reduce the EPA to "little tidbits" and proposed budgets that would force the layoff of thousands of agency staff, Pruitt was ineffective in persuading Congress, which has maintained level funding for the agency.

Pruitt can point to one major milestone on his way out the door. The EPA has finished its drafting of a replacement for the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, The New York Times reported, and has sent it to the White House for review.

But the fact that EPA is proposing replacement—not total repeal—of the rules is a tacit admission of the agency's legal obligation to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Pruitt, facing opposition from White House staff, never was able to launch his vaunted "red team, blue team" exercise to question mainstream climate science. He also angered farm state lawmakers by easing requirements on the use of ethanol by refineries.

Former Murray Coal Lobbyist Takes Over

The job of carrying out Trump's environmental agenda will now pass to Wheeler, the deputy EPA administrator, who prior to his work for the nation's largest underground coal mining company, Murray Energy, was a top aide to one of Congress's most prominent climate science deniers, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). 

Wheeler, who as a Senate staffer worked on legislation that had bipartisan support, such as the energy bills of 2005 and 2007, garnered support from three conservative Democrats and all Republicans in his confirmation in the Senate last April.

Andrew Wheeler with then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, whose duties Wheeler is taking over. Credit: EPA

Andrew Wheeler (left), who will become acting administrator, is a former coal lobbyist for Murray Energy and was a longtime aide to Sen. James Inhofe, a fossil fuels advocate and opponent of climate policy. Credit: EPA

When questioned by senators about his own views on climate change, Wheeler sidestepped outright denial, while understating the agreement among mainstream scientists and the urgency of the issue. "I believe that man has an impact on the climate, but it's not completely understood what that impact is," Wheeler said at the hearing in November.

Before his appointment, Wheeler was helping make Murray's case for a dramatic rollback in regulations affecting the coal industry early in the Trump administration; he was pictured at a meeting between Murray and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

Myron Ebell, director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Center for Energy and Environment, a fierce opponent of climate action who served on Trump's transition team, voiced confidence that the president's agenda will be carried out by Wheeler.

"We thank Scott Pruitt for his outstanding service as EPA administrator, and we regret that personal troubles got in the way," Ebell said. "Over the past 18 months, the EPA has made tremendous progress in ensuring that Americans have access to affordable and reliable energy," citing in particular the decision to exit the Paris climate agreement, a move which Pruitt urged on the White House amid debate within the administration.

Next Steps for Pruitt?

A former Oklahoma attorney general with close ties to the fossil fuel industry, Pruitt built his reputation by suing the EPA 14 times in an effort to overturn regulations.

As EPA administrator, he continued to consult closely with industry officials, emails obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests showed, and he appointed aides who also had close ties to industry. Pruitt was widely seen as having higher political ambitions, but it remains to be seen whether he can emerge from the morass of ethical misconduct allegations to resume a political career.

Pruitt, who sought to restrict media access to the agency and often chose to release information through conservative outlets, did not publicly release a resignation letter, but it was published by Fox News.

"Truly, your confidence in me has blessed me personally and enabled me to advance your agenda beyond what anyone anticipated at the beginning of your administration," Pruitt wrote in the letter addressed to Trump.

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