Facing heat from lawmakers, EPA chief Scott Pruitt defends regulatory rollback

Scott Pruitt at the Conservative Political Action Conference 2015. (Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)

By Shelby Fleig

WASHINGTON -- A House Appropriations subcommittee grilled U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt Thursday afternoon on his deregulation agenda and spending habits.

Even though Pruitt is under fire amid a number of ethics scandals — including a $43,000 soundproof booth for his office, his below-market Capitol Hill condo rental from an energy lobbyist’s wife, and his reported retaliations against agency staff — Democratic lawmakers mostly voiced concerns about what they see as the administrator’s gutting of environmental protections policies.

Pruitt has announced a rollback to Obama-era fuel economy standards and a proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan, which limits power plants’ carbon emissions. Democratic lawmakers argued that would threaten public health.

“Rolling back regulations that limit emissions will mean more cases of asthma in children,” said Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., the subcommittee ranking member. “That’s a fact. Your approach is bad for the environment, bad for public health and bad for business.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, also said her constituents experience high rates of asthma due to air pollution.

“We’re at the end of the tailpipe when it comes to the Clean Power Plan,” Pingree said. “We have ‘red alert’ days. And I have no idea why would you want to rollback limits on fuel emissions.”

But Pruitt stood firm in the face of the criticism, telling lawmakers his vow to cut fuel economy standards came after a review of the previous administration’s standards, which he said were based on assumptions of market conditions that haven’t come true.

“What we don’t want to see happen is we set the standards so high that manufacturers manufacture cars that people don’t purchase,” Pruitt said. “What happens is, people will stay in older vehicles, which actually increases emissions.”

The Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies subcommittee is made up of seven Republicans and four Democrats and is chaired by Rep. Ken Calvert, a Republican from California. The two-hour hearing also focused on the EPA budget, which President Trump wants to cut by 30%.

“We will not support President Trump’s budget or your efforts to cripple the EPA with draconian cuts,” Rep. McCollum said.

Pruitt defended the Trump administration budget, saying the agency is “stripping burdensome costs” and making “transformational change.”

Republicans used their time to stand up for Pruitt and his actions as EPA administrator. Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., says his state’s coal economy has greatly improved since Pruitt took over last year.

“Your agency is restoring hope to the people of West Virginia,” Jenkins said. “What a difference, candidly, an election makes. I appreciate the good work of this administration getting us back in business.”

Pruitt’s job security in Trump’s fluid administration has been in question recently, amid his mounting ethics scandals. But Pruitt has relentlessly implemented Trump’s campaign deregulation promises, and the president continues to defend Pruitt at least publicly. But Democrats at the hearing questioned whether he’s fit for the job.

Toward the end of the hearing, McCollum, the highest-ranking Democrat on the panel, looked straight at Pruitt and, speaking slowly, told the embattled administrator: “Mr. Pruitt, I think it’s time for you to resign.”

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.