Washington Wednesday: Pruitt’s problems at the EPA

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 9th of May, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s episode of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: And I’m Kent Covington. And today is Washington Wednesday.

When Scott Pruitt was confirmed as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in February of last year, he was charged with carrying out one of President Trump’s key campaign promises: rolling back many of the Obama-era regulations at the EPA. And a month later, President Trump signed a wide-ranging executive order to begin that process.

TRUMP: We are lifting job-killing restrictions on the production of oil, natural gas, clean coal and shale energy. And finally we are returning power to the states where that power belongs.

Despite that mandate from the White House, implementing those changes has not been easy. Hundreds of EPA employees, many of whom were hired during Obama administration, reportedly left the agency during Pruitt’s first year on the job. But plenty of EPA staffers who oppose the Trump administration’s policies remain on the job.

Pruitt has faced a steady barrage of negative press from the moment he assumed the post. But recently criticism of Pruitt has reached a fever pitch amid numerous ethics probes.

Last month, the federal government’s top ethics official, David Apol, sent a letter to the the EPA’s ethics office, urging it to investigate Pruitt’s alleged violations. Apol said Pruitt’s spending habits—quote—“raise concerns and may constitute a violation of the States of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch.”

While President Trump voiced support for Pruitt, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters late last month …

SANDERS: We’re evaluating these concerns and we expect the EPA administrator to answer for them.

And a short time later, Scott Pruitt did just that. Lawmakers grilled him for hours about reports of frivolous spending and other complaints. Pruitt told members of a House Energy and Commerce panel… 

PRUITT: I promise you that I more than anyone want to establish the hard facts and provide answers to the questions surrounding these reports. Let me be very clear. I have nothing to hide about how I’ve run the agency for the past 16 months.

Among other things, Pruitt is accused of sometimes improperly flying first class, installing a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office, and renting an apartment from a lobbyist’s wife for only $50 per night.

Apol’s letter also highlighted reports of Pruitt—quote—“making frequent official trips to his home state at government expense to offset the expense of returning home for personal or political reasons.”

How serious are the accusations? It all depends on who you ask. Democrats say they’re quite serious.

PALLONE: I’m confident that these investigations will affirm what I’ve come to believe is true – that you are unfit to hold public office and undeserving of the public trust.

New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone. He is one of dozens of Democrats who have called on Pruitt to resign.

But Pruitt and his supporters say opponents are twisting minor infractions or oversights into scandals for political purposes.  

PRUITT: Facts are facts and fiction is fiction. And a lie doesn’t become truth just because it appears on the front page of a newspaper. Much of what has been targeted at me and my team has been half-truths or, at best, stories that have been so twisted they do not resemble reality.

Pruitt’s defenders say the scrutiny Pruitt faces is tied to controversial policies. One example: Seventeen blue-leaning states and the District of Columbia are suing Pruitt’s EPA over its rollback of Obama-era auto emission standards.

Critics say Pruitt doesn’t care about protecting the environment and some even accuse him of waging a “war on science.”

Joining me now with more insight on those policies is John Tierney. John is a journalist who spent more than two decades reporting for The New York Times. Is is now a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s quarterly publication, City Journal. He has been closely following policy shifts at Pruitt’s EPA.

And John, before we talk about that, I have to start out here on a personal note: You say that you set a record for hate mail at The New York Times! How’d you manage that?

JOHN TIERNEY, GUEST: I wrote a cover story for The New York Times Magazine headlined, “Recycling is garbage,” and it, uh, (laughs) basically pointed out that the whole rationale for the recycling movement, that we’re running out of landfill space was mistaken. In New York we spent probably close to $2 billion more than we would have if we had simply put the stuff in a landfill. And there’s no shortage of landfill space. So, it’s really one of these fake crises that has ended up being very costly. And the biggest cost of all is all the time that people have spent acting as unpaid garbage sorters. (laughs)

Well, John, you say similarly that Scott Pruitt at the EPA is trying to challenge some dogmas. So what are the biggest changes, so far, that he’s made or is trying to make within the EPA?

TIERNEY: Well, the EPA, like other federal agencies, has been doing stuff that Congress really ought to be doing. It’s been interpreting laws that were passed for one purpose, and then interpreting them broadly, imposing kind of vast new costs and regulations on consumers and on businesses. And one thing Pruitt’s doing is he’s simply trying to get back to enforce the laws as they’re written instead of trying to dream up new interpretations of them. And he’s basically been pushing them also to rely on better science. There’s a long history at the EPA of politicized science. Of basically cherry-picking studies and using things to basically justify scaring people, justify new regulations, and to justify expanding the EPA’s power. I mean, that’s had some very bad consequences especially throughout the world or places that have followed our lead and it’s caused a lot of other costs.

Okay, so you say that Pruitt is trying to get the E-P-A to rely on better science … and one of the ways he wants to do that with regard to climate change is through something called a red-team/blue-team exercise. What is that?

TIERNEY: Yeah, a red team/blue team is something that’s been used for designing spacecraft and in military planning and intelligence planning. And the idea is that there’s a team of outside experts, the red team, comes in and they evaluate the plan drawn up by in-house blue team. And then the red team says here are the problems with your analysis, blue team deals with those objections and either answers them or changes the plans to meet them, and they go back and forth. And it’s basically a form of peer review, an intense form of peer review. When you have this back and forth, you end up with much better science, much better planning. And he has suggested doing this for climate change and this is greeted with calls of, “how could you be so unscientific?” People are saying, “No, we already know all we need to know about climate change, it would just confuse things.”

Now, The New York Times published a piece, and you’ve referenced it in some of the things you’ve written on the topic, which is from March this year. And it says under a new policy that Pruitt is proposing, and I’ll just quote it here, it says the proposed policy would–quote–”would no longer consider scientific research unless the underlying raw data can be made public for other scientists and other industry groups to examine.” And the Times article says many scientists see this as an attack on science. You say it’s the opposite. Why?

TIERNEY: Oh, yeah. This has become fairly standard in many scientific journals now. When you do a study you have to make your data available to be analyzed by other researchers. And the EPA has been relying on some studies that the data is not public and not available to be challenged. And it has to do with the mortality from certain very small particles, and this research dates back to the 90s. When it was first done the EPA’s own board of scientific advisers asked to see this data because there’s been very conflicting data on whether these small particles really cause, how much damage they really do. And the data has not been available to outsiders and yet it’s been used to justify really, really expensive regulations.

Okay, well that seems to make sense, but the argument that’s made is that the reason why this type of research should be considered even though it may not be able to be publicly challenged is that these fields of research often require personal health information for thousands of people who may only agree to participate if the details are kept private. And if you get rid of data that has to kept confidential for that reason, you’re scrapping some really valuable information. So, is that not a valid argument?

TIERNEY: Well, there are ways, very well-established ways where you can keep the individual’s data confidential while also sharing the data. People have complained that, you know, it could cost the EPA several hundred million dollars to redact the personal medical information on these things. But when you compare the cost – several hundred million dollars – to the costs of these regulations, it’s a pittance. I mean, the Obama EPA estimated the annual cost of its clean power plant at $8 billion. And others estimated it at more than $30 billion. Now, when you are going to impose that enormous cost on consumers, you should rely on the best possible science and, I mean, nobody wants to have dangerous particles in the air, but you have to consider a cost-benefit analysis, and other people have found ways to study this without getting into this personal problem. People have looked at state medical records in California just looking at the available public records and the level of particles in the air and there have been studies, you know, in peer review journals saying, look, we don’t really see this effect that the EPA is basing this science on. We don’t see the mortality resulting from this. And so the way to resolve this, obviously, is to have more studies, more data, more researchers looking at the data to work it out. And I think in that sense, requiring transparency is a step forward for science and for the public.

Okay. John, what is Scott Pruitt getting wrong at the EPA?

TIERNEY: Well, I think he’s made some blunders in opening himself up to these ethical accusations. I mean, as a contrarian journalist, I’ve done a lot of this stuff with environmental hype that you really have to cover your flanks. I mean, when I write these articles I try to make sure I’ve got every fact triple-checked because any mistake you make, the other side seizes on that for an ad hominem attack, “Oh you can’t trust him, you can’t do this,” and there’s a large establishment of scientists and consultants and bureaucrats who make a very good living from the EPA regulating things, and there are a lot of companies who like being regulated by the EPA because it helps reduce competition sometimes. So there’s a big establishment, as Donald Trump says, “the swamp” that you’ve got to deal with, so you’ve got to really protect your flanks. I think in that sense he could have done a better job of avoiding these ethical accusations.

Alright, well, John, thanks so much for your time and insights. We appreciate it.

TIERNEY: Thank you, Kent.

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon) In this April 26, 2018 photo, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt removes his glasses as he testifies at a hearing of the House Appropriations subcommittee for the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, on Capitol Hill in Washington. 

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