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Lacking experience, EPA nominee will be 'drinking from a fire hose'

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Essential Energy Insights - September 17, 2020

Essential Energy Insights September 2020

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Lacking experience, EPA nominee will be 'drinking from a fire hose'

The most recent earthquake in Oklahoma was a 3.5-magnitude shaker that rocked Yale, Okla., on Dec. 6. This was just a day before news broke that President-elect Donald Trump would name the state's attorney general Scott Pruitt as the nominee to become the administrator of the U.S. EPA. And despite numerous lawsuits being filed by residents of his state against the oil companies blamed for causing the earth quakes, Pruitt has yet to get involved in an official capacity in any of the cases, according to Johnson Bridgwater, leader of the Oklahoma chapter of the Sierra Club.

A 2014 New York Times investigation found that a letter purportedly written by Pruitt had been penned by attorneys from one of Oklahoma's largest oil and gas companies. Bridgwater said the state has experienced 21,000 earthquakes in the past six years, and Pruitt's failure to weigh in on the issue is yet another example of the influence that oil and gas companies have on the attorney general.

"The very fact that this issue has been clearly tied to industry practices and the attorney general has in no way shape or form even dipped a toe into this matter, despite numerous lawsuits that are going on, to us that's a pretty clear working example that once again he's overlooking the needs of the citizens and environmental concern over those of big industry," Bridgwater said.

But this points to a larger issue, according to Brendan Collins, an attorney with Ballard Spahr LLP who represents utilities that are supportive of the EPA's Clean Power Plan. Pruitt lacks any environmental or state regulatory experience, beyond his interest in some energy-related cases in his six years as attorney general. Both of the previous two EPA administrators had worked as state environmental regulators and EPA staffers before becoming the top agency official.

"As near as I can tell, aside from the political hot button issues that Attorney General Pruitt has gotten involved with on behalf of the state of Oklahoma, he has no experience with environmental management at all," Collins said. "He has certainly picked his issues. In general I would be surprised to find that he had much experience with the statutes involved in those cases beyond the very narrow confines of the issues that were addressed in the cases themselves, or even in the briefs, in which Mr. Pruitt and his staff took part."

The experience of running the attorney general's office will certainly provide some help to Pruitt once he takes over the sprawling organization that is the EPA, Collins said. "But I think he will be drinking from a fire hose with respect to lots and lots of other aspects of environmental regulation," he added.

The EPA for fiscal year 2016 has an enacted budget of $8.1 billion, and 15,376 employees, according to the agency. A November 2015 report from The Oklahoman showed that Pruitt grew the attorney general office's staff from 149 in 2011 to 199 in 2015, while expenditures jumped from $28.3 million in the 2011 fiscal year to $48.6 million in the 2015 fiscal year.

"I'm confident that EPA is a much larger, more complex organization to run than the attorney general's office of Oklahoma," Collins said. An EPA administrator has to be able to handle whatever is thrown at them, from hearings on Capitol Hill, to staff issues, to complicated statutory issues to interpreting science to make decisions. Collins added, "the EPA administrator has got to be like a CEO, and President-elect Trump is thinking of it in those terms, where the administrator has to get the high level issues and make sure people are in place to implement those policies."

Collins said Pruitt will have to lean heavily on his deputies for the implementation of high level policies as his lack of managerial experience in a large organization will be a handicap. But getting a full complement of advisers into the agency could take time, especially as Democrats in the Senate are gearing up to fight Pruitt's own nomination.

"You can't just be an air guy and run the agency. Everybody has their own strengths and weaknesses, but they've got to be able to embrace all of the programs," Collins said.

Those that have been fighting the same regulations as Pruitt see his experience as translating nicely to the administrator position. Fellow Attorney General Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia said Pruitt is smart and principled, and has been "in the trenches in the fight against the EPA." Morrisey listed a few other regulations that Pruitt has been involved in, including the new source performance standards for carbon emissions that impact new fossil fuel power plants and rules targeting oil and gas.

Morrisey sees Pruitt as being a friend to his state and its environmental agenda as he works to implement what Trump envisions for the agency. The Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association similarly sees Pruitt as the administrator for all people in the country, and said Pruitt has proven himself to be a legal expert.

Bridgwater said he has not had a working relationship with Pruitt in his time as attorney general but has tracked his record and "constant desire to thwart the EPA." Before becoming attorney general, Pruitt served two terms as a state senator, during which time Bridgwater said Pruitt was at odds with Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin in some of the legislation he introduced.

"I have never seen any situation where he has seemed interested in looking at other positions," Bridgwater said. "In a role like the administrator of the EPA, it would sadden me to see somebody who is blatantly partisan. What America needs is somebody who is going to truly look at the environment as an issue not as a partisan matter."

Collins expects cutting the Clean Power Plan to be among Pruitt's first acts as administrator, followed possibly by the Clean Water Rule, commonly referred to as waters of the U.S., or WOTUS. One supporter of Pruitt suggested there is "interest on both sides of the aisle" in opening up the Clean Air Act. But Collins thinks that is unlikely to happen, and he has not heard of such bipartisan support.

"Members of Congress don't even want to open the Clean Air Act [and read it], much less re-open the Clean Air Act," Collins said. "I think that the wiser heads in Congress would recognize that it makes no friends for the Republican party to dismantle what has been in all respects a very, very successful program to improve air quality for everybody in the United States."

Re-opening the Clean Air Act would be "painfully ironic and politically terminal" as cities around the world struggle with air pollution for the U.S. to go backwards in terms of the gains made in reducing harmful pollution," Collins said.

"I don't think there's support for that in Congress, and I don't think there's support for that in the electorate. And people in the House of Representatives are acutely aware that in about 25 minutes after inauguration, they gotta start running for election in 2018," Collins said. "And I don't think anybody wants to run up that hill."