Environmental Experts Say New EPA Head Can't Stop Clean Energy Revolution

(3BL Media/Justmeans) — The World Resources Institute (WRI) has held a press call to discuss the confirmation of Scott Pruitt as the EPA Administrator for the Trump administration. Pruitt’s nomination has been quite controversial given that in his previous job as Oklahoma’s state attorney general he had sued the EPA on numerous occasions, particularly over regulations dealing with the electric power industry. Pruitt has been a leading opponent of Obama’s Clean Power Plan which gave the EPA the authority to regulate CO2 emissions under the Clean Air Act.

On hand for the call were several authorities in the area of environmental and energy policy, including:

  • Sue Tierney, Managing Principal, Analysis Group, and former Assistant Secretary for Policy at the U.S. Department of Energy (and a WRI Board Director)
  • Ralph Becker, former Mayor of Salt Lake City
  • Anne L. Kelly, Senior Program Director, Policy and BICEP Program at CERES
  • Sam Adams, WRI US Director and former mayor of Portland, OR
  • Martha Roberts, EDF, Attorney, U.S. Climate Legal and Regulatory Program

Adams opened by saying that “scrutiny is warranted, considering the responsibility that EPA bears in ensuring public and environmental health of our nation.” Thoughtful analysis is also called for, he said, considering the urgency of issues like climate change.

Recounting some testimony from Pruitt’s confirmation hearing, which, somewhat ironically, fell on the same day that NASA announced that 2016 was the hottest year on record, for the third consecutive year, Pruitt did say that he acknowledged that climate change is real (moderating his prior position) and that there is a human aspect to it. However, he questioned the scientific consensus as to the severity of the problem and the need for action. In his testimony, he conveyed no sense of urgency about the issue. Pruitt, according to Adams, also overstated the significance of the Supreme Court’s temporary suspension of the clean power rule on procedural grounds, and played down his ties with the fossil fuel industry

Pruitt has said, on the record, in reference to his repeated use of his role as the state’s chief enforcement officer to file lawsuits on behalf of companies that have supported his political career, to challenge regulations put in place to protect the health and safety of the people he was sworn to protect, "That's actually called representative government, in my view of the world....” Others might call it political patronage. In one case, it was discovered that Pruitt had copied a  letter from an oil and gas company, nearly verbatim, onto his stationary as Attorney General, before submitting it to the EPA.

Mr. Pruitt also refused to commit to recusing himself as EPA administrator, when confronted with lawsuits against the EPA that he personally filed when Attorney General of Oklahoma.

Martha Roberts shared EDF’s view of Scott Pruitt. Describing him as someone who “has spent his entire professional life attempting to dismantle environmental protections, working hand-in-glove with some of our nation’s biggest polluters, who have bankrolled his political career, that nominee becomes an unacceptable risk to the American people.”

Pruitt is the first EPA nominee that EDF has opposed in its 50-year history. Roberts went on to quote Christine Todd Whitman, EPA administrator under George W. Bush, who said of Pruitt’s record, “I don’t recall ever having seen an appointment of someone who is so disdainful of the agency and the science behind what the agency does.”

Roberts went on to say that, “In Oklahoma, Pruitt shut down the environmental enforcement unit and zeroed out its budget. His office never announced any environmental enforcement initiatives or successes.”

There seems to be a principle that Mr. Trump and his appointees share that views the role of government as helping businesses, any way they can, even if that means ignoring other considerations, such as public health and safety. What’s less clear, however, is whether that principle applies to all businesses, on an ideological basis, or only to those businesses to which there are allegiances.

According to Roberts, Pruitt sued EPA 14 times to oppose clean air and clean water safeguards. In 13 of those actions, his co-litigants either contributed directly to his campaign or to a Pruitt-affiliated PAC.

Sue Tierney, former DOE assistant sectary, spoke next about “what Pruitt might or might not be able to do to in terms of clean energy and rolling us back to an industry more dominated by coal.”

She explained that if he tried to take action through EPA regulatory means to derail clean energy, he will be “swimming terribly against the tide. This is because of the many fundamental energy market forces that will push against efforts to restore coal’s position in the electric industry.” To start with, demand for electricity is basically flat, so there is not a lot of anticipated growth, which makes it a zero-sum game. Since 95% of coal produced in the US is used for power generation, the only way for coal to regain market share would be to displace other sources, whether they are renewables, natural gas, hydro, or nuclear.

Tierney went on to talk about how shale gas has undercut coal based on cost and has thereby taken away a huge amount of coal’s market share. Given Trump’s expressed support for fracking, it seems unlikely that this situation is about to change. If anything, Pruitt likely support expanded fracking.

As for wind and solar, it's well known that their costs have declined dramatically over the past decade as well. Furthermore, renewables are bringing lots of jobs, and they are popular. Many tech companies are signing up for long-term renewable contracts, because it helps them stabilize their energy costs while contributing to sustainable climate solutions. Then there are the states, which have a myriad of policies on the books promoting renewables. She also pointed out that any investors in new power plants will be making multi-decade commitments, which means that they will likely be reluctant to buck current trends based on new regulations, given the distinct possibility that the next administration could reverse them. Disturbing the current regulatory climate will likely generate a lot more uncertainty that no one in the industry is going to like.

Ralph Becker, former mayor Salt Lake City, talked about the role of cities, emphasizing that cities also need long-term stability when considering infrastructure investments. Utah, being an arid state, has been monitoring the water supply--snowpack nexus and has been taking action to ensure future water availability. Responding to climate change has been a central tenet of decision making.

Finally, Anne Kelly of Ceres, pointed out that more than 700 companies, including many household names, have signed a letter to now-President Trump asking him to stay the course on climate change and not withdraw from the Paris climate deal.

The letter, which was originally signed in Marrakech in November, and added hundreds of signatories since, said, “Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk. But the right action now will create jobs and boost U.S. competitiveness.”

In many ways, for the business community, the horse is already out of the barn. Kelly encouraged Pruitt to “do the math,” and to “talk to some of these companies."

Martha Roberts mentioned that it was Scott Pruitt’s contention that environmental regulation should be left in the hands of the states. That would mean that people living in states like the one he is currently Attorney General of, one where local politics are entirely dominated by oil and gas interests, would receive little if any environmental protection. Additionally, states would be constantly battling over cross-border pollution, which is a very real issue. A recent study conducted at Indiana University, found that a preponderance of air polluters tend to locate just upwind of state borders, presumably to avoid state environmental regulations. These are exactly the reasons why we need environmental policy and regulations set at the Federal level.

It's instructive to look at what's Pruitt's boss has to say. On the Energy tab of the new Whitehouse.gov website, it reads, "...our need for energy must go hand-in-hand with responsible stewardship of the environment. Protecting clean air and clean water, conserving our natural habitats, and preserving our natural reserves and resources will remain a high priority. President Trump will refocus the EPA on its essential mission of protecting our air and water."

So, Trump says he will protect our air and water. Presumably, that protection will focus more narrowly on "traditional pollutants" and not CO2. It's worth noting that nowhere on this site can the words climate change or renewable energy be found.

It remains to be seen if Pruitt will be confirmed. If he is, that can be no doubt that he can initiate a great deal of harm to our nation’s skies and waters. Yet, in the opinion of these experts, the transformation to a clean energy economy, might be hampered, but it will not be stopped.