Back to Basics or Slash and Burn? Scott Pruitt's Reign as EPA Administrator

Date01 November 2017
11-2017 NEWS & ANALYSIS 47 ELR 10917
Back to Basics or Slash and Burn?
Scott Pruitt’s Reign as
EPA Administrator
by Bob Sussman
Bob Sussman served as EPA Deputy Administrator under President William Clinton and as Senior Policy Counsel
to the EPA Administrator under President Barack Obama. Formerly a partner at Latham and Watkins, Bob is
now an energy and environmental consultant and an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown Law Center.
Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt
describes his philosophy as “back to
basics.”1 is phrase is a sly dig at his predecessors Lisa
Jackson and Gina McCar thy for straying f rom the Agen-
cy’s core mission, a s well as a n implicit promise to return
EPA to its roots.
Although Pruitt’s words suggest a renewed focus on the
fundamenta ls of environmental protection, his actions tell
a dierent stor y. Instead of doubling down on traditional
programs safeguarding air, water, a nd land, Pruitt’s ten-
ure has been dened by an obsessive focus on undoing
the legacy of Barack Obama’s EPA, downsizing the Agen-
cy’s workforce and budget, repea ling rules on the books,
weakening EPA’s science capabilities, and scaling back
oversight of state programs. As these initiatives unfold,
EPA’s ability to maintain core protections a nd respond to
new t hreats—the bread and butter of EPA’s mission—is
rapidly eroding and may suer irretrievable damage if
Pruitt’s policies continue.
EPA has experienced swings of the pendulum before,
but none as extreme as this one. Pruitt is well outside the
mainstream of previous EPA Administrators of both par-
ties, an outlier who threatens the Agency’s eectiveness
more than any challenge it has faced before.
Despite the ebb and ow of environmental policy from
one president to the next, the core protections EPA imple-
ments have shown remarkable stability and continuity over
time. is is because dierent Administrators, with limited
exceptions, have embraced common va lues and goals a nd
have generally built on and strengthened the work of their
predecessors. As a result, as new Agency heads have tack-
led emerging environmental challenges or improved poli-
cies on the books, their eorts have largely endured and
1. Kimberley A. Strassel, W
S. J., Feb. 17, 2017,
become part of the evolving body of science a nd law t hat
denes the Agency’s mission.
Pruitt, however, has uprooted the U.S. environmental
protection framework by turning this paradigm on its
head. Instead of bui lding on the work of his predecessors,
he has embarked on an unparalleled eort to undo Obama
Administration rules and to suspend their implementation,
delaying the environmental benets they were intended
to deliver. Unlike previous EPA Administrators, Pruitt
has failed to articulate a vision of future environmental
progress, and edicts from the White House have para-
lyzed EPA’s ability to pursue a forward-looking regulatory
agenda. Even routine technical and reg ulatory tasks have
been imperiled by the downsizing of the workforce, loss
of critical expertise, a nd declines in funding. EPA cannot
function eectively if its institutional moorings are called
into question every four years and the Agency’s main focus
is to undo the work of the prior administration rather than
to maintain and enhance core protections.
At its root, this deeply destructive approach reects
skepticism and suspicion of the value of environmental reg-
ulation, coupled with cynicism about the scientic, legal,
and economic tools that have traditionally been the under-
pinnings of EPA’s programs. us, Pruitt is not preserving
the “ basics” of our environmental protection system, but
deconstructing them.
I. The Environmental Policy Consensus
Putting Scott Pruitt in the broader context of U.S. envi-
ronmental policy since 1970 underscores how radica lly he
has departed from the traditional concept of EPA’s mission.
Today’s environmental protection system is the product
of a bipartisan consensus that endured for several decades.
is consensus was embodied in a series of comprehensive
laws enacted between 1965 and 1996 that passed with large
margins in the U.S. Congress, and were signed by presi-
Copyright © 2017 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®,, 1-800-433-5120.

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