Scott Pruitt's anti-environmental agenda hits a snag: The courts

Fred Krupp

It looks like Scott Pruitt – one of the Trump administration’s most adept operators – may have finally met his match: the law.

With the White House mired in dysfunction, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief has spent the past six months trying to systematically tear down America’s clean air and water safeguards.

But now – thanks to states, the judiciary and the growing voice of the American people – Pruitt’s easy ride may be over.

EPA chief suffers 3 court losses in 2 months

Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, with all 11 active judges participating, dealt Pruitt a setback in his attempt to loosen limits on methane pollution for thousands of oil and gas facilities. That makes a hat trick of Pruitt’s recent losses.

Shortly before this setback, Pruitt withdrew an attempt to delay important actions on smog pollution after coming under legal pressure from states and community groups.

Those defeats followed a decision in early July in which a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit denied Pruitt’s attempt to suspend the methane pollution limits. The full court affirmed that panel’s decision in the August 10 ruling.

Pruitt carries industry’s baggage

Pruitt worked closely with industry lobbyists to block more than 30 environmental rules during his first few months in office, and his attempt to set aside the pollution reductions for oil and gas wells came as no surprise. He has a well-documented history carrying industry’s baggage that dates back to his days as Oklahoma’s Attorney General.

Pruitt announced his initial attempt to postpone methane rules shortly after a closed-door meeting in March with the board of the oil industry’s largest trade association, which had been urging him to delay these protections.

The standards cover facilities built or heavily modified since September 2015 – more than 18,000 wells nationwide, and counting. They sensibly require companies to check sites for leaks of dangerous air pollutants, and to repair them promptly.

Suspending the methane rules, even for a few months, would expose communities across the country to tons of additional pollution at the peak of summer when air quality is at its worst.

Court: EPA’s lawsuit “inaccurate”

The EPA failed to even mention – much less consider – these impacts before trying to suspend the methane rules. In fact, the record shows Pruitt’s justification for halting the methane standards was seriously misleading. The court methodically rejected the agency’s arguments, concluding they were “inaccurate and thus unreasonable.”

The August 10 ruling is a strong reminder that the Clean Air Act and other laws cannot simply be swept aside, and it makes clear that facts and an open process matter.

Pruitt is now trying to delay compliance with the same methane pollution limits by two full years – even though he conceded publicly that doing so would likely harm children’s health.

As public pressure mounts, Congress wavers

At a public hearing this summer, citizens opposing the roll-back outnumbered supporters 116 to 2 – another clear sign that Americans want the EPA to maintain public health protections, not demolish them.

It serves as fair warning to Pruitt that he needs to comply with the law and give the public a voice in the process. 

Even in Congress, there are signs that the administration has gone too far.

In May, for example, the White House suffered its first direct legislative defeat on any issue. Three Republican senators crossed party lines to vote down a measure to kill Bureau of Land Management methane waste rules for oil and gas operations on public and tribal lands.

None of this means Congress or the courts will put a complete stop to the Trump administration’s attacks on clean air and water. It’s going to continue to be a tough fight.

But it does serve as fair warning to Pruitt that he needs to comply with the law and give the public a voice in the process.

Pruitt is accountable to the law

As our EPA chief continues his campaign to roll back safeguards, there will surely be additional court challenges. And if he continues his track record of excluding the public and making inaccurate arguments, we will hold him accountable to the law.

Ultimately, however, what will keep these safeguards in place is what made them happen in the first place – the American people demanding responsible development and a better world for their children.

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