Edit ModuleShow Tags

Welcome to Hazard

Frankenpruitt is scary, but he’s not surprising

On the campaign trail, Trump promised to “end the war on coal and the war on miners.” Last week, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt made good on that promise, announcing the withdrawal of the Clean Power Plan (CPP).

“The war against coal is over,” he said to a crowd of miners.

He was in Hazard, Kentucky, but he might as well have been in Oklahoma, speaking across the southern border to our Texas neighbors.

Last year, the EPA introduced a plan in Texas meant to reduce the amount of haze created by 14 power plants across the state, nine of which are coal-burning, as enforcement of the Regional Haze Rule found in the Clean Air Act.

While the Clean Air Act, passed in 1963 (and which has had several amendments) still exists, the Trump administration and Pruitt’s EPA are rolling back the CPP, which established emission guidelines for states to limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil fuel-fired power plants. The plan aimed to reduce U.S. carbon pollution by a third by 2030.

But according to Pruitt, the CPP exceeded the agency’s statutory authority—meaning they were bulldozing industries without the legal right to do so. In fact, he called it “regulatory assault.”

“ … We are no longer going to have regulatory assault on any given sector of our economy,” Pruitt said in March of President Trump’s executive order to review the CPP. “We are not going to allow regulations here at the EPA to pick winners and losers.”

Pruitt repeated the “winners and losers” talk in Hazard, when he again said that was the aim of the CPP.

As far as losers are concerned, a study at MIT’s Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment found that air pollution causes 200,000 premature deaths every year. And according to the Oklahoma chapter of the Sierra Club, last year’s plan to reduce haze from Texas alone could save Oklahoma taxpayers $770 million in annual health costs. That figure doesn’t take into consideration the rest of the effects the CPP might have had—if it had ever gone into effect. (When it was proposed by the Obama administration in 2014, 28 states—Oklahoma included—sued the federal government, freezing the plan’s implementation.)

At a Congressional hearing on the legal implications of the CPP in 2015, while Pruitt was still Oklahoma Attorney General, he said, “Quite simply, madam chairwoman, the EPA does not posses the authority under the Clean Air Act to do what it is seeking to accomplish in the so-called Clean Power Plan. The EPA under this administration treats states like a vessel of federal will.”

Environmentalists and polluters alike are wondering how the EPA will uphold its federal responsibility to regulate pollutants as the Supreme Court decided it must in the 2007 case Massachusetts v. EPA.

According to The Economist, there are fewer than 4,000 underground coalminers in Kentucky, or less than 0.2 percent of the state’s labor force, due to cheap natural gas and declining costs of renewable energy—not a war on coal. CBS News reported last week that a Department of Energy survey released earlier this year shows nearly 374,000 people in the U.S. earn at least a part of their living from solar, versus just over 160,000 in coal.

That same report found that “solar employment accounts for the largest share of workers in the Electric Power Generation sector ... largely due to the construction related to the significant build out of new solar generation capacity.”

“Yet it was coal miners who assumed almost mythic importance in Donald Trump’s campaign narrative of paradise lost during last year’s presidential election,” wrote Helaine Olen for CBS.

But rhetoric plays well, as we’ve seen exemplified again and again since the contentious 2016 presidential campaigns. And what is perhaps most frightening about that rhetoric, is that no one is quite sure exactly what is meant, and what isn’t. When one goes to investigate the opposing sides (which may simply mean Googling them) to get a clear picture, the picture is anything but.

A lot has been written about Scott Pruitt—his work as Oklahoma Attorney General and his current reign as head of EPA. After President Obama’s climate change-focused administration, Pruitt is a breath of … something different.

Some of what’s written is alarmist. Some of it isn’t. Think Progress tells you Pruitt is stabbing people in the back, while Outside Magazine publishes an article titled “Don’t freak out ...” A middle of the road analysis might be that Pruitt is simply taking a page from his Oklahoma AG playbook: bringing everything back to the argument that states have the rights to determine these rules for themselves—a different philosophy than what is often adopted by federal-level officials.

But federal administrations will continue to come and go. And people like Pruitt will continue to fight them at the state level. While Pruitt is working to undo the environmental progress made under Obama, we might look at how we got here and what can be done locally.

“Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.”
— Mary Shelley, “Frankenstein”

Kentucky-born Pruitt began his political career in the Oklahoma Senate representing Tulsa and Wagoner counties from 1999–2007. He then set his sights on the office of Attorney General, running a campaign focused on challenging the Obama administration rather than the typical AG rhetoric on criminal justice. His message resonated with Oklahomans and he won by a landslide in 2010.

According to eenews.net, a news site for energy and environmental professionals, Mark Derichsweiler, who formerly worked at the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, couldn’t recall Pruitt championing any environmental enforcement while AG. “He hasn’t really done anything to protect Oklahomans,” Derichsweiler said. “He campaigned on EPA overreach.”

The year he was elected AG, Pruitt dismantled Oklahoma’s Environmental Protection Unit—an office which investigated environmental crimes like illegal dumping. He then created a Federalism Unit meant to challenge the EPA. State budget funding for environmental law in the AG’s office fell from $463,000 in 2010 to zero dollars in the span of four years. Meanwhile, the office of the solicitor general, where the Federalism Unit is housed, went from zero dollars in 2010 to $545,000 in 2014. In the 2016 state budget, it received $3.6 million.

He went on to sue the EPA as Oklahoma AG 14 separate times.

In 2012, Pruitt challenged the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, a law preventing hazardous pollutants such as soot, mercury, and smog from crossing state lines. The pollutants were known to cause asthma attacks and premature deaths. The EPA estimated that under the protection anywhere from 13,000–34,000 premature deaths are prevented every year.

“People who live downwind of these major polluters need this decision, because the ozone and particle pollution in their communities threatens their lives,” representatives of the American Lung Association said in a statement.

Other Pruitt suits against the EPA challenged anti-pollution programs established to reduce ozone levels in the air. Some have yet to be heard in court. Researchers find ozone to be immensely dangerous when accumulated at ground level, intensifying asthma symptoms and causing premature deaths. The American Lung Association calls it “one of the most dangerous” pollutants in the United States.

In 2014, Devon Energy was accused of releasing 80 more tons per year of methane gases than it was permitted. This year, Pruitt suspended the methane rule, potentially saving Devon $430,000 annually, and showing good faith to his old friends (more on that later).

In June of this year, the EPA also announced it would roll back the Clean Water Rule, which was introduced by the Obama administration to clarify the 1972 Clean Water Act. All “navigable waters” were to be included and protection extended to drinking sources of nearly a third of the U.S. population.

Pruitt called the Clean Water Rule “the greatest blow to private property rights the modern era has seen.”

That argument might sound familiar to Oklahomans—it hearkens back to a local fight over water and its cleanliness.

In 2005, former Oklahoma AG Drew Edmondson sued Tyson Food and other major poultry companies for pollution and health hazards caused by animal waste runoff in the Illinois River. The action required the companies to change their methods of disposing of the yearly 300,000 tons of animal waste.

While the lawsuit concluded before Pruitt took office, the judge never issued a ruling and the case remained stagnant. Attorney General Pruitt disbanded the Environmental Protection Unit that regulated factory chicken farms. Many of the companies named in the suit made significant contributions to Pruitt’s 2010 campaign. An investigation by the Environmental Working Group discovered he received more than $40,000 in campaign contributions from executives and lawyers representing the poultry companies. Connections like that make draining the swamp more difficult.

His link to industry has been apparent for years. An open-records request for correspondence between Pruitt’s office and the industries he was expected to regulate revealed frequent meetings, calls, and other events with executives from fossil fuel industry businesses, such as Devon Energy, dating back to as early as October 2011. Representatives from the company helped Pruitt draft a letter to the EPA aiming to fight regulations related to fracking. Investigations found the letters sent to Pruitt by Devon Energy company were almost identical to letters sent off to President Obama by Pruitt.

A 320-page documentation of his schedule from February through May showed almost no meetings with environmental groups or public health advocates. Several of his meetings were with companies who helped him sue the EPA.

Tom Pelton, communications director for the Environmental Integrity Project, told Think Progress, “... Scott Pruitt’s calendar ... shows that his focus is entirely on serving the oil and gas industry and other big polluters—not the environment or the health of the American public, which he has a responsibility to protect.”

But Pruitt believes you can be pro-business (or pro-energy), and pro-environment at the same time. Is that possible, or is that simply more hot air?

With the famously secretive Pruitt leading the charge, it’s hard to tell.

According to interviews from EPA employees, Pruitt is the first head of the agency to request 24-hour security and has restricted access to his floor, requiring employees to have an escort to gain entrance.

Christopher Sellers, a professor at Stony Brook University, compiled interviews from nearly 40 EPA employees past and present. Sellers took precautions to ensure their identities were concealed.

“Pruitt is requesting in the 2018 budget that he have a security team, 24/7, made up of 10 people because he feels his life is, I guess, at risk because there’s such internal hatred at EPA. This is scary and unfounded,” said an anonymous employee.

Employees are also asked to leave their cell phones behind when meeting with Pruitt and are sometimes told not to take written notes.

Steven J. Milloy, member of Trump’s EPA transition team and author of the book “Scare Pollution: Why and How to Fix the EPA” said, “EPA is legendary for being stocked with leftists, if you work in a hostile environment, you’re not the one that’s paranoid.”

This year, Pruitt received the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) Golden Padlock award, which recognizes “the most secretive U.S. agency or individual.”

From the IRE announcement in June:

Pruitt was selected for this honor for steadfastly refusing to provide emails in the public interest and removing information from public websites about key environmental programs. The Center for Media and Democracy filed nine public records act requests, and one lawsuit between 2015 and 2017, seeking Pruitt’s emails during his time as Attorney General of Oklahoma. It took two years, and a judge’s order containing candid criticism of Pruitt’s office for its “abject failure” to abide by the Oklahoma Open Records Act.

The resulting emails showed Pruitt “closely coordinated with major oil and gas producers, electric utilities and political groups with ties to the libertarian billionaire Koch brothers to roll back environmental regulations.” But many other emails have been withheld and are subject to a lawsuit.

Pruitt has recently ordered a custom designed, soundproof phone booth, according to government contracting records. Made by a company in Richmond called Acoustical Solutions, the booths were originally designed for conducting hearing tests. Pruitt’s version is for complete privacy within the agency. The booth was completed on October 9th to the tune of nearly $25,000.

His expenditures—besides the booth and security detail—are also in question. From March to May this year, Pruitt visited Oklahoma or traveled between Oklahoma and D.C. 43 times. The travel is now being investigated by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General.

In an August 28 press release, the EPA IG said it would begin work to determine, “the frequency, cost and extent of the Administrator’s travel that included trips to Oklahoma, through July 31, 2017” and  “whether EPA policies and procedures are sufficiently designed to prevent fraud, waste and abuse with the Administrator’s travel that included trips to Oklahoma.”

“I’m in D.C. and ... across the country and states,” Pruitt told The Oklahoman in July. “There’s no one who has looked at our record, including these groups, and said, ‘They’re not very efficient and/or impactful.’”

He sees visiting Oklahoma as a key component of his role because he believes EPA regulations have had a severe impact on the state.

In late July, according to public records, Pruitt and six staff members arranged a flight on a Department of Interior plane from Tulsa to Guymon, OK, with the price tag of $14,434.50. The EPA said “time constraints” on Pruitt’s schedule prevented him from driving to the location. The purpose of the trip was to meet with Oklahomans  “whose farms have been affected” by a rule known as the Waters of the United States rule, which, according to Politico, “...is largely a technical document, defining which rivers, streams, lakes and marshes fall under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers.”

Pruitt has initiated a process to withdraw the Obama-era regulation.

In addition to Pruitt’s frequent Oklahoma visits, he has also taken at least four non-commercial and military flights since February, costing taxpayers nearly $58,000. Liz Bowman, Pruitt’s spokeswoman explained the flights were due to, “particular circumstances.”

But as for the agency itself? Pruitt approves of slashing their budget by 31 percent, the largest of any federal agency. Those cuts could affect Oklahoma in several ways—namely, reduced funds for cleaning up superfund sites like Tar Creek in northeast Oklahoma; cuts to state environmental grants that help pay for environmental programs that respond to citizen complaints, monitor industries for pollution, and deal with environmental emergencies; and fewer employees at the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.

“You are my creator, but I am your master; Obey!”
— Mary Shelley, “Frankenstein”

Pruitt’s family attends First Baptist Church of Broken Arrow where he is also a deacon. Head pastor Nick Garland, whose sermons are accessible on Youtube, calls on the congregation to pray for the EPA administrator. Garland believes there is a “war on spirituality,” and once referred to the women’s march on Washington as an example of liberal intolerance and a stark contrast to the powerful impact of the Christian faith being brought back into the White House. “Righteousness will once again be exalted in this land,” he said.

Pruitt pictured as a righteous soldier heading into war is a gross exaggeration, yet Pruitt as a greedy boogeyman poisoning children with mercury or methane may be off the mark. There is no doubt that what is happening inside of the White House and EPA is alarming. Pruitt and his Republican cohorts should accept scientific fact and address the real and present dangers of climate change and environmental hazards.

Oklahomans must ask themselves what their role has been in getting Pruitt to where he is now, and what it should be in the future, should he set his sights on the governorship in 2018, or U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe’s seat in 2020.

“Here is a guy who doesn’t believe in climate change,” said a current EPA employee. “Well, that’s one thing. And you’ve sued the agency 14 times, ok. But he’s still one person versus 15,000 people. Right? And not a whole lot of other bodies around to support him from what I can see so he can dictate and try to affect change all he wants, but these people—let me tell you they’re gonna go underground.”

Frankenstein wasn’t a self-made man. He was created.

Edit ModuleShow Tags

More from this author 

A fitting end

Cheap Thrills Vintage says goodbye

Erosion of trust

Confusion and conflict swirl around Tulsa County’s contract with ICE
Edit ModuleShow Tags

More from this authorLiz Blood

A serious indication

Tulsa Police Department combats domestic strangulation through education—and arrests

Everybody’s face

We have a lot to learn from survivors of domestic violence—and our recent history