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Pruitt Exit Brings Change in Style—Not Substance

July 5, 2018, 11:14 PM

Scott Pruitt is out—but his policy agenda is here to stay, and some say it may even benefit from the scandal-plagued former EPA chief’s exit.

President Donald Trump announced on Twitter July 5 that he accepted Pruitt’s resignation as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt’s last day will be July 6, and Andrew Wheeler, the EPA’s deputy administrator, will take the helm as its acting head July 9.

Pruitt started the process to undo or weaken many Obama-era climate and environmental regulations, including greenhouse gas limits on power plants, fuel economy standards for cars and trucks, clean water rules, and chemical safety regulations. He also initiated policies to change EPA operations, such as restricting the science the agency can use, restructuring its science advisory panels, and adjusting how it calculates regulatory costs and benefits.

Pruitt won’t be there to finish work on those efforts, but most in industry don’t expect much of a change in agenda or any major bumps in the road.

Wheeler, a former energy industry lobbyist who also served as Republican counsel on the Senate environment committee under Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) for nearly 15 years, largely sees eye-to-eye with Pruitt on policy, industry figures agreed.

“I think we’ll see a change in style, and [Wheeler] is just a little more quiet. I don’t think he’s inclined to be quite so political,” Jeff Holmstead, an attorney at Bracewell LLP in Washington who served as the EPA’s air chief under President George W. Bush, told Bloomberg Environment. “I think it will probably be a healthy thing for EPA.”

Some Policies Could Stall

Some rollback efforts could stall slightly without Pruitt at the helm while the agency determines who will permanently replace him. Lee Hoffman, an attorney with Hartford, Conn.-based Pullman & Comley LLC, told Bloomberg Environment that more control could revert to EPA career staff in the short-to-medium term.

“I think that Mr. Pruitt was an advocate for undoing much of the regulatory advances made by predecessors, Gina McCarthy and Lisa Jackson,” Hoffman said, referring to President Barack Obama’s EPA chiefs. “All those will be put on pause as the career environmental officials will be addressing those.”

Myron Ebell, environment and energy director with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, doesn’t expect Wheeler to let up on any core Trump administration priorities.

But Ebell—who led Trump’s transition team for the EPA—said questions remain about whether Wheeler continues an intense focus on Pruitt-specific initiatives, such as Superfund cleanups and changes to the way the agency uses science.

Holmstead said Wheeler is fully supportive of the science initiatives, which included a restructuring of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board.

Wheeler will continue those initiatives in a “more low-key way” and will be able to make some needed refinements to those policies, he added.

Different Styles

Not everyone is looking forward to the subtler, more behind-the-scenes style Wheeler is poised to bring with him as he takes the helm of the agency.

Ebell told Bloomberg Environment that Wheeler is going to have to develop a public presence to enable him to help sell the Trump agenda to the American public.

“They’re very different in style. Scott Pruitt is all about convincing the public he’s doing a great job; Wheeler is all about internal management,” he said. “Andrew will have to come out of the office occasionally and talk to the world. That’s not his thing.”

Environmental groups also are unhappy with Wheeler, whom they have sharply criticized for his former lobbying work for coal mining giant Murray Energy Corp. Minutes after sending statements to cheer Pruitt’s exit, for which they had intensely lobbied, environmental groups slammed Wheeler’s appointment to the EPA’s top slot.

“Like Pruitt, this veteran coal lobbyist has shown only disdain for the EPA’s vital mission to protect Americans’ health and our environment,” Ana Unruh Cohen, managing director for government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “Make no mistake: we’ll fight Wheeler’s pollution agenda with the same vigor as we did Pruitt’s.”

‘Unrelenting Attacks’

Trump offered initial praise for Wheeler, telling reporters that he was an early supporter of the campaign.

“He is a very environmental person. He’s a big believer, and he’s going to do a fantastic job,” Trump said.

Pruitt’s last few months at the EPA were consumed by a steady drip of ethics controversies—including high costs for first-class travel and around-the-clock security, a $50-a-night condo rental deal with Washington lobbyists, and suggestions the former administrator forced out staffers who raised objections to his spending decisions.

At the time of his departure from the EPA, Pruitt was facing more than a dozen investigations over his conduct in office.

“Your courage, steadfastness and resolute commitment to get results for the American people, both with regard to improved environmental outcomes as well as historical regulatory reform, is in fact occurring at an unprecedented pace and I thank you for the opportunity to serve you and the American people in helping achieve those ends,” Pruitt wrote in his resignation letter. “However, the unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family, are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us.”

Even those groups supportive of Pruitt’s agenda acknowledged that the swirl of ethics allegations could have dampened progress on regulatory rollbacks in recent months.

“I’m sure they’ve been a distraction to the agency and to Pruitt and to the good staff that were trying to do good work,” Ellen Steen, general counsel and secretary for the American Farm Bureau Federation, told Bloomberg Environment.

—With assistance from Amena Saiyid, David Schultz, Sam Pearson, and Pat Rizzuto

To contact the reporter on this story: Abby Smith in Washington at asmith@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bloombergenvironment.com