February 21, 2017: Uncertainty and Scott Pruitt

Scott Pruitt becomes EPA chief

On Friday, February 18, Scott Pruitt was confirmed by the Senate to become the EPA Administrator. The Senate voted 52-46 to confirm Mr. Pruitt.  This was largely split down party lines; two Democrats voted for Mr. Pruitt, and one Republican, Senator Susan Collins from Maine, voted against him.

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Scott Pruitt being sworn in as EPA Administrator, Feb 17. Photo: Reuters

Scott Pruitt represents a radical shift in EPA priorities. Pruitt is likely to scale down the activities of the EPA significantly, although exactly what he will do is unclear and is also constrained by the agencies’ considerable legal mandates. In an interview in the Wall Street Journal shortly after his confirmation, Pruitt stated that there will be a withdraw of existing climate rules (referencing former President Obama’s Clean Power Plan), and that this will trigger legal processes that could result in a new interpretation of the Clean Air Act so that it may not apply to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. This statement is in contrast to Pruitt’s nomination hearings, during which he told members of the Senate Public Works and Environment Committee that the EPA does have a role in regulation carbon dioxide, and that the legal basis for the endangerment finding (a 2009 EPA declaration that carbon dioxide represents a danger to human welfare), is sound. This news seems to imply that Pruitt and the EPA will take legal steps to not only undo climate protections, but in the process also undo the legal basis for climate change policy in this country. Although Pruitt is a seasoned legal opponent of EPA climate protections, there are significant roadblocks to such actions In the 2007 Supreme Court case Massachusetts v EPA, the Court held that EPA does have the authority to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. In the WSJ interview, Pruitt mentioned that an act of Congress may be necessary to change the way US agencies treat carbon emissions. There is a law introduced in the House this session cosponsored by over 100 Republicans (similar iterations have been introduced in previous sessions) that aims to stop any federal agency from regulating greenhouse gases in any way. Although this law will likely not pass, this is what a potential act of Congress could look like in this realm.

Trump signs Stream protection repeal

On Thursday, Feb 16, Donald Trump signed into law a bill that dissolved an Interior Department Rule that would seek to shield nearby streams from waste disposal as a byproduct of coal mines. The bill was passed by both Houses of Congress under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which allows Congress to review agency rules in a short period after they are issued. The White House released a statement arguing that the move is necessary to ease burdens on coal producers, and is a part of a broader project to undo Obama-era regulations on industry.

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Author: Jared Sousa

Macalester College '2017, Political Science and Environmental Studies

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