U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt on Thursday (July 20) defended President Donald Trump’s decision to repeal and review water and clean air regulations implemented by the previous administration, saying the former president chose environmental “winners and losers” that hurt the U.S. economy.
“What the president understands, in my view of his leadership, is that this country can be about growth and also stewardship,” Pruitt said in an interview with Talk Business & Politics. “It was the past (Obama) administration that said we had to choose between jobs and growth and protecting the environment.
“That’s a false choice. What this president is saying, ‘yes, we can’ do both – achieve growth, jobs and also be good stewards. And the evidence and history is there when you look at what we’ve done as a country to reduce our air pollution under the Clean Air Act,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt was in Arkansas as part of a “state action” tour, where he met with Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge to discuss restoring “cooperative federalism” by re-visiting the 2015 “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rule. He also announced EPA’s approval of Arkansas’ 303(d) water quality standards which lists impaired waters for the state of Arkansas dating back to 2010. EPA is clearing the backlog that existed for the years 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016.
Gov. Hutchinson said he was pleased Pruitt and the Trump administration are working with states and governors about how regulations affect citizens, citing data that 76% of water bodies impaired in 2008 are no longer showing damage and 335 waters are now meeting state water quality standards.
“(President Trump’s) decision to rescind the burdensome and overreaching surface water rules, enacted under the Obama Administration, is welcome news and shows a return to cooperative federalism with the states,” Hutchinson said in a statement.
In a one-on-one conversation with Talk Business & Politics after meeting with the governor, Pruitt said a large focus of this trip has been on WOTUS rules because of the lack of clarity that followed the 2015 definition by the Obama administration.
“What you don’t want is someone to engage in land use of whatever type and then find out after the fact that the EPA comes knocking on the door and says ‘you should have got a permit and we are going to assess you quite a bit of money,’” he said. “That regulatory uncertainty is what we are dealing with and we are hearing that across the spectrum of states that we are visiting.”
Besides the WOTUS rules, Pruitt also touched on President Trump’s executive order in March to roll back many of the Obama administration’s climate change initiatives, including the far-reaching Clean Power Plan that is now pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The new EPA chief said his plan will not focus on legal ramifications of the plan, but on how to halt implementation of the regulations.
“We have a proposed rule that will be finalized that will withdraw the Clean Power Plan and it is yet to be determined if there will be a step two,” Pruitt said. “What we do have is a withdrawal of the (plan) that was created by the rule.”
After President Barack Obama and EPA officials unveiled the final version of their Clean Power Plan (CPP) nearly two years ago, critics said the federal mandate unlawfully exploited Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act to force states to come up with plans to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions by an average of 32% by 2030.
The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw the Clean Power Plan was widely expected after Pruitt was confirmed by the Senate in February. Pruitt said in the interview he and his staff are also reviewing EPA ozone rules the Obama administration had implemented. In June, Pruitt sent letters to governors in all 50 states to inform them of the Trump administration’s decision to extend the deadline for new ozone standards promulgated in October 2015 by an additional year. The so-called NAAQS standards for ground-level ozone is an outdoor air regulation under the Clean Air Act. It calls for the EPA to review ozone standards every five years by following a set of open, transparent steps and considering the advice of a panel of independent experts. The EPA last updated these standards in 2008, setting them at 75 ppb (parts per billion).
As part of the process to determine what areas of the country are able to meet the current air quality standards, states must submit proposals for area designations under the 70 ppb standard. Areas designated as being in “non-attainment” of the standard face a number of consequences, including increased regulatory burdens, restrictions on infrastructure investment, and increased costs to businesses.
“Sometimes people think that this term ‘regulatory overreach’ is overused. It is truly descriptive of what took place with the (Obama) administration,” Pruitt said. “The past administration did it wrong on the ozone, the Clean Power Plan and WOTUS. That’s not an editorial comment – the courts have said so. We have to fix this mess through proper regulation.”
EPA BUDGET CUTS
Pruitt said he is also moving forward with President Trump’s campaign promise to downsize the EPA’s budget and staff. In announcing his $1 trillion budget earlier this year, Trump unveiled plans to slash the EPA’s 2018 budget by 31% to only $5.7 billion and cut more than 3,200 jobs from the agency’s payrolls.
Although the 2018 budget has to be approved by Congress, Pruitt said he is already looking at ways the EPA budget can be slashed. He said the agency is identifying possible cuts, but those plans have not been publicly revealed although some media reports say 8% of the EPA staff will be cut this summer.
“There is room to make cuts at the agency, especially when you are paying for gym memberships to the tune of about $1 million. There is obviously room for contraction and room for better stewardship of the taxpayers’ money,” Pruitt said, not offering other specific details.
Pruitt bristled when asked about criticism by the Sierra Club and other groups that he was anti-environment and appointed by the Trump administration only to roll back federal water and dirty air regulations and push a pro-coal and business agenda. He also criticized former President Obama’s environmental record, citing the Flint, Mich., water crisis and the Supreme Court’s decision to stay the Clean Power Plan.
“I would ask the Sierra Club and those other individuals, what did they do to improve under this past administration – this supposed ‘environmental savior,’” Pruitt said of former President Obama.
Pruitt also said there is a false belief that the Trump administration and conservatives don’t care about the environment and air quality. The Tulsa, Okla., native said “true environmentalism” should include stewardship and allow American industry to use natural resources properly to “power and feed the world.”
“An agency at the federal level is not empowered to pick winners and losers and to declare war on any sector of the economy. It administers the statutes passed by Congress and (does) so by incorporating the voices of states, citizens and industry across the country to make informed decision on how to achieve better water and air quality.”
SIERRA CLUB RESPONSE
When asked to explain the Trump administration’s stance on climate change, Pruitt deferred and said that is part of the ongoing discussion on the Clean Power Plan (CPP). In the past, President Trump and others in his administration have denied the impact of climate change, and the president was criticized when the U.S. was the only nation to pull out of the Paris climate accord earlier this month.
“That is really a CPP discussion. So that’s what we are trying to determine as far as what tools are in the toolbox because the steps that the previous administration took to regulate (carbon emissions) … were struck down,” Pruitt said before aides ended the interview.
After Pruitt left the State Capitol, the state chapter of the Sierra Club issued a statement criticizing his visit, saying the EPA chief was only in Arkansas to promote the Trump administration’s anti-environmental agenda to revamp major parts of the Clean Water Act.
“Arkansas is The Natural State, a place where we place a high priority on clean water,” said Sierra Club Director Glen Hooks. “We hope that Administrator Pruitt learned today about the damage and environmental consequences that the Trump administration’s clean water rollbacks will cause to our citizens and waterways.”