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How Much Damage Could Scott Pruitt Really Do at EPA?

Donald Trump’s choice for EPA director would put at risk the nation’s ability to meet its Paris climate commitments.
February 8, 2017
Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, addresses the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works during his confirmation hearing.

The Senate is expected to confirm Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency as early as this week, placing him in charge of a government body that he sued more than a dozen times and that his new boss, President Donald Trump, pledged to scrap.

Public statements and leaked documents indicate that Pruitt and the administration will move to narrow the agency’s authority, slash staff, and stall efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. “We don’t know exactly what Mr. Pruitt will do,” says Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “But certainly his history is one of doubting climate science and pushing the short-term interests of fossil-fuel development.”

Pruitt is likely to target a series of environmental standards put into place under President Obama, including the Clean Power Plan and higher fuel economy standards for vehicles. Rolling back those regulations would make it increasingly difficult for the nation to meet its already ambitious commitments to the landmark Paris climate agreement.

But Pruitt won’t be able to force through these changes without a fight. Scaling back most of these rules, which are grounded in hard-won legal battles and well-established climate science, would require protracted public review and almost certain challenges in court.

As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt joined a multistate effort to sue the agency over the Clean Power Plan, a rule enacted under President Obama requiring power plants to reduce carbon pollution 32 percent by 2030. Implementation of the plan is currently on hold pending review before the Supreme Court.

During Senate committee confirmation hearings, Pruitt also said he would review a recent decision by the Obama administration to lock in fuel economy standards that tick up another 10 miles per gallon by model year 2025. In addition, Pruitt said he wouldn’t commit to allowing California to continue its own vehicle emissions rules, which it has imposed for decades under EPA waivers. That exemption has historically helped ratchet other state and federal standards higher.

Growing fears over what Pruitt’s policies could mean for the EPA and the environment prompted hundreds of former agency officials to urge the Senate to reject him in a letter on Monday. “Every EPA Administrator has a fundamental obligation to act in the public’s interest based on current law and the best available science,” reads the letter, issued by the Environmental Integrity Project. “Mr. Pruitt’s record raises serious questions about whose interests he has served to date and whether he agrees with the long-standing tenets of U.S. environmental law.”

Under the Paris accords, the United States pledged to cut emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. That amounts to as much as 2.1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases that contribute equivalent levels of warming, according to a Lawrence Berkeley National Lab study published in September. The Clean Power Plan alone could account for as much as 267 million tons of such reductions in 2025, or more than 12 percent of the total goal, the report found.

Revising or eliminating fuel economy standards could also have a significant effect on emissions goals. In 2012, the EPA estimated that increasingly efficient cars and personal trucks would eliminate 140 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2025. Over the full lifetime of vehicles produced in model years 2017 to 2025, that figure adds up to nearly two billion tons.

None of the administration’s policy overhauls could simply sail through, however. Undoing the federal fuel economy standards and withdrawing the California waiver would each require a protracted process of public notice and comment, says Danny Cullenward, an energy economist and lawyer with the Near Zero program at the Carnegie Institution.

The Trump administration has more options for defanging the Clean Power Plan. The most likely scenario is that the EPA could withdraw the regulation and write a new, narrower version of it, says Michael Wara, an associate law professor at Stanford who studies energy and the environment. But that, too, would entail a lengthy public process and almost certain litigation.

There are also more aggressive options that could restrict the broader authority of the EPA, through revised findings at the agency or a congressional amendment to the Clean Air Act, Wara says. The “nuclear option” would be to reopen the EPA’s earlier determination that greenhouse-gas emissions are a pollutant subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act.

“Doing that would be incredibly tough,” Wara says. “They would have to overcome mountains of evidence that greenhouse-gas emissions do in fact cause harm. And in the world of rule-making, facts do matter.”

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