By Basav Sen
May 3, 2018

No self-respecting prosecutor would be proud of winning a shoplifting conviction for a suspected murderer. But that’s almost exactly what’s happening in the congressional investigation of Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt.

Last week, lawmakers grilled Pruitt for renting a ridiculously cheap luxury condo from the wife of a lobbyist trying to get EPA approval for a client’s project. They asked why he reassigned investigators of criminal violations of environmental laws to his personal security detail.

It was all about the “appearance” of corruption. But the truth is that these petty corruptions pale in comparison to Pruitt’s actual policy record at the EPA.

The EPA is a science agency. It’s supposed to consult closely with scientists and base its decisions on rigorous evidence. While adherence to this principle has never been perfect, under Pruitt’s leadership it’s been trashed beyond recognition.

Even as he was about to face his congressional questioning, Pruitt announced a deceptive science “transparency” initiative. It’s a proposed rule stating that only scientific studies which are reproducible, and in which all underlying data are publicly available, can be used as the basis for regulation.

It sounds unobjectionable. But it would end up keeping a whole lot of public health data—on the impact of pollution, pesticides, or climate change, for example—out of the EPA’s hands.

For obvious ethical reasons, many public health studies can’t be repeated—not if they’d entail intentionally exposing people to toxins—and raw data on individuals’ health histories usually can’t be disclosed. Several hundred scientists pointed out these facts in a letter to Pruitt, but Pruitt doesn’t care what scientists think.

It gets really egregious when you look at what kind of data political appointees at the EPA want to exempt from the rule: proprietary corporate data, according to internal discussions obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The proposed rule provides wide discretion to the EPA administrator—and only the administrator—to grant exemptions to the transparency requirement on a case-by-case basis. And Pruitt seems far more inclined to grant those exceptions to polluting industries, not public health researchers.

That means that ingredients listed in, say, pesticide registration applications could remain a secret. Thanks to that loophole, the EPA could still approve the pesticide without making data from the manufacturer regarding its safety publicly available. Yet if researchers confidentially gather private health data on people harmed by that pesticide, that evidence could be inadmissible for regulation.

The “transparency” proposal is part of a clear pattern.

Pruitt issued a directive last year banning scientists who receive EPA funding for their research, typically from academic institutions, from serving on the agency’s Science Advisory Board, on the pretext that they have a conflict of interest. But he has no problem stacking the board with scientists from industries regulated by the EPA.

Meanwhile, the EPA has censored science on government websites and retaliated against whistleblowers, creating an Inquisition-like atmosphere for government scientists.

Pruitt himself has gone on television telling the demonstrable lie that the science on climate change is unsettled. Pretty much all serious scientists who study the issue—including U.S. government scientists—agree that the Earth’s climate is changing at an unprecedented rate, primarily because of human emissions. For a Cabinet official to intentionally mislead the public on a scientific issue with life-and-death consequences for humanity is a far more serious matter than first-class flights or a $43,000 phone booth.

Pruitt’s denialism serves as cover for administration-wide policies certain to result in planetary catastrophe if gone unchecked.

The EPA’s recent move to roll back automobile fuel efficiency standards benefits almost no one except auto manufacturers, who save on R&D costs, and oil companies, for whom greater fuel consumption translates into more revenues. It certainly doesn’t benefit the driving public, who will save less on gas than they would under the existing rule.

The rule Pruitt wants to repeal is projected to cut 6 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases over a 13-year window. By way of comparison, total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 were 6.5 billion metric tons. That’s a lot more planet-warming emissions, all to benefit handpicked corporations.

Some might argue that Pruitt’s policy agenda is the Trump administration’s prerogative as an elected administration. Pruitt himself has played up this argument, claiming that the corruption charges against him are intended “to attack and derail the president’s agenda.”

But when that agenda means reneging on the EPA’s core mission of protecting public health to serve corporate interests, it falls way outside any electoral mandate. In fact, a recent study in the American Journal of Public Health finds that the EPA “has moved away from the public interest and explicitly favored the interests of the regulated industries,” and is on the slippery slope to what scholars term “regulatory capture,” in which a government agency makes rules in the interest of an industry it’s supposed to regulate rather than the public.

This is the real Scott Pruitt scandal—the story of a man systematically dismantling the agency he leads to benefit the oil and gas industry (which practically owns him) and other polluters, to the detriment of the environment, Americans (especially people of color and the poor), and vulnerable people worldwide. He should be impeached for gutting our environmental protections, not for his first-class flights.

Critically, making Pruitt quit wouldn’t be enough. If his successor pushes the same policy agenda minus the $50-a-night Washington condo rentals, the benefit of getting rid of Pruitt will be merely symbolic. Congress needs to use its oversight power to enforce accountability to law, science, and the public interest at the EPA.

Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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