(Bloomberg) -- Supporters and detractors of Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt agree on this much: He matters.
Pruitt, whose continued tenure has been put in doubt by a series of ethics controversies, has attracted an extraordinary outpouring of support among conservative boosters who say he’s the most effective member of President Donald Trump’s cabinet. Likewise, the organizers of a "Boot Pruitt" movement see him as a serious risk to the environment he’s supposed to be protecting.
Yet it is hard to assess Pruitt’s tenure by traditional standards. Many of his high-profile initiatives, such as overturning the Obama administration’s plan to curb carbon emissions from power plants, face years of legal challenges.
Nor can Pruitt’s significance be tied to a roster of regulatory actions -- including those designed to jettison old rules. Federal data show that since Trump’s inauguration, the agency has submitted nine "economically significant" rules, defined as those with likely economic impact of at least $100 million, to the White House for review. By comparison, the Department of Health and Human Services has produced 31 such rules, the Department of Labor six and the Department of the Interior five.
Narrow that list to the new rules that have actually been issued, and Pruitt’s impact is even harder to spot. Of the 24 economically significant regulations that have been approved by the White House under President Donald Trump, just one was issued by the EPA, according to data posted by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. And that rule set the amount of renewable fuels that must be used in 2018 -- a regulation the EPA must issue every year, regardless of who’s in charge.
Those figures don’t include regulations that were in the works when Pruitt arrived in Washington and that he has blocked.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox cited the agency’s work to repeal Obama-era rules governing carbon dioxide emissions and water pollution as evidence Pruitt is advancing Trump’s agenda.
“From advocating to leave the Paris Accord, working to repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan and Waters of the United States, declaring a war on lead and cleaning up toxic Superfund sites, Administrator Pruitt is focused on advancing President Trump’s agenda of regulatory certainty and environmental stewardship," Wilcox said in an emailed statement.
A fuller assessment of Pruitt’s 14 months in office shows that he’s laid the groundwork for a wholesale revision of environmental policy, one that delights anti-regulatory groups and frightens environmentalists.
"Without a doubt, Scott Pruitt has been the single most effective appointment of the president of the United States," said Tim Huelskamp, president of the Heartland Institute, an industry-funded nonprofit that advocates for less regulation.
Vera Pardee, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, shared that view, albeit from the opposite direction. "The deregulatory agenda of Trump finds its most destructive expression in Mr. Pruitt," she said.
That shared view of Pruitt’s importance helps explain the effort that advocates have poured into keeping him in his job -- or getting him removed. The outpouring is far greater than was expended on behalf of other embattled cabinet members, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin who both ended up losing their jobs.
Pruitt has been dogged by a series of controversies, including expensive first-class tickets and 24-hour security details, hefty raises for aides and renting a Capitol Hill bedroom from a lobbyist for $50 a night. In response, environmentalists have mounted a campaign to seek Pruitt’s ouster; advocates of smaller government, meanwhile, have set up a coordinated effort of their own to retain him at the EPA.
Both sides put Pruitt’s effort to reduce the influence of academic scientists within the EPA near the top of their list of reasons why he matters. Pruitt has removed many of those scientists from advisory boards, replacing them with people who reflect the concerns of industries the EPA regulates.
Those boards are important. The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, for example, helps establish ozone standards that the agency is required to implement.
Steven Milloy, publisher of the website JunkScience.com and a senior fellow at the Energy and Legal Institute, praised Pruitt for installing as chairmen of the Science Advisory Board and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee "people I consider to be very strongly grounded in science."
Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, echoed Milloy’s point about the importance of those boards -- although he characterized Pruitt’s appointments as "stacking" them.
Another point of agreement is Pruitt’s changing the rules on so-called "secret science." He has directed the EPA to use only research whose underlying data is publicly available. Environmental advocates say that prevents the EPA from issuing air and water regulations supported by health research, since the identities of patients studied in those papers is kept private.
Huelskamp, of the Heartland Institute, praised that change. Halpern criticized it.
Pruitt also has made major policy pivots outside the formal rulemaking process. That includes the EPA’s decision not to ban the commercial use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos and methylene chloride used in paint strippers. The EPA also has relaxed air pollution requirements via memos and internal opinions -- navigating around the federal rulemaking process in a way that has already drawn at least one legal challenge.
Environmental advocates also argue that Pruitt has restrained the EPA’s willingness to fine polluters for violating the law.
"If you look at his enforcement record, it is disastrous and terrifying," said Lukas Ross, climate and energy advocate for Friends of the Earth. "It’s not just the number of cases lodged, but it’s also the amount of money that’s been captured through lodging those cases."
Equally consequential, Ross added, are Pruitt’s efforts to change the mission of the agency, in a way that will drive away staff who care about protecting the environment.
"There is a very real threat of brain drain because of the morale crisis being created by Scott Pruitt," Ross said. "If I worked at the EPA, I would be thinking about quitting too."
On that point as well, Milloy, the Junk Science publisher, agreed.
"Are these people sad?" Milloy asked. "The rest of America is happy."
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