FRONTLINE: War on the EPA airs and is available to stream on Wednesday, October 11 at 10:00 pm.
“You could say Scott Pruitt is one of, if not the most, effective Cabinet members in terms of fulfilling the president’s campaign promises and regulatory reform agenda,” says James Jacoby, the producer, writer, and director of the Frontline investigation War on the EPA, which examines Pruitt’s path to leading an agency he had sued fourteen times as Attorney General of Oklahoma. “It’s an effort to reorganize and thin down the administrative state, and Scott Pruitt is certainly emblematic of what they see as their mandate to do that.”
According to The New York Times, the Trump administration has moved to roll back more than 50 environmental rules since January (Pruitt was confirmed as head of the EPA in February). In June, Trump announced that the US would be exiting the Paris Climate Accord, a US-led pact in which 195 nations agreed to reduce emissions and move to green energy sources. On Tuesday, Pruitt began one of his most consequential reversals, signing a rule initiating withdrawal from Obama’s signature environmental policy, the Clean Power Plan. Intended to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the Plan was announced in 2015 but was stayed in early 2016 by the Supreme Court pending arguments in lower courts over its legality. Twenty-nine states and state agencies, including Pruitt’s Oklahoma, had sued the EPA when the plan was announced. (A group representing residents of Southeast Chicago and Northwest Indiana plans to sue Pruitt himself over failure to respond to a petition to regulate a top pollutor in the area.)
In announcing that he would reverse the Clean Power Plan on Monday in the coal town of Hazard, Kentucky, Pruitt said, “The war on coal is over.” For years, the coal and oil and gas industries have battled environmental rules in a fight led by people like the Koch brothers and Robert Murray, a coal-mining executive, and assisted by Tea Party politicians and attorneys general like Pruitt. Ending Obama-era regulation of those industries was a major promise of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and it may have helped him win the crucial Rust Belt states that gave him the edge in the election.
“The Trump message that resonated was this idea that the Obama administration had waged war on coal country,” says Jacoby. “He then used the coal miner as a symbol for the disenfranchised white, male, middle-aged worker who is struggling right now for a whole host of reasons.” Jacoby continues, “It’s a message that we’ve all been hearing for a long time – that environmental regulations and regulations writ large are jobs-killers – but it really did resonate in this election.
“There is a pivotal moment in the election when Hilary Clinton, at a town hall meeting in Ohio, makes the statement that, yes, we are going to put the coal business out of business. The next statement right after that was something like, ‘we want to replace it with renewables.’ But that was enough for Trump and folks like Bob Murray to really just say that this is validation: they have been gunning for us.”
Environmental regulation was such a charged and powerful issue during the election partly because the battles over it and the EPA’s role have become proxies for debates about the reach of government, influence in politics, economic restructuring, and presidential power. “The EPA has become a very easy scapegoat for much more complicated, much larger economic forces out there,” Jacoby says.
During his first term in office, Obama attempted to pass environmental legislation in Congress, but failed. After Republicans gained a majority in the House in 2010 – many of them having signed a “no climate tax” pledge circulated by the Koch brothers’ grassroots Americans for Prosperity group – Obama moved on to using executive orders to institute regulations during his second term.
“The idea of using executive authority to impose something on a lot of red states or coal- and oil and gas-producing states was seen as an imperious act by voters there, and certainly an opportunity for politicians and special interests to frame it as an all-out attack on their way of life,” says Jacoby. “It was a lot of political messaging, and a good deal of political opportunism.”
That’s not to say that regulations did not affect the coal or oil and gas industries. “While it’s hyperbole to say that there was a war on coal, there unequivocally were lots of regulations during the Obama administration that did target coal; understandably, considering all of the environmental concerns surrounding coal, both for air and water quality,” says Jacoby. “I do think that Bob Murray does have genuine concern for his workers. He felt under attack and did feel that he had to lay off a lot of workers under Obama.”
Murray is an example of the new relationship between the EPA and the industries it regulates. He has ties to Pruitt from when Pruitt was Oklahoma’s Attorney General; Murray’s company, Murray Energy, donated $350,000 to the Republican Attorneys General Association while Pruitt was its head. Murray was a backer of Trump during the presidential campaign, donating more than $81,000 to Trump in 2016, and has met with the president in the White House, advising him on regulation.
“There’s this interesting intersect between the financial interests at stake in the energy industry and the more ideological issues of the role of the federal government,” says Jacoby. “Scott Pruitt is at the intersection of the ideological interests and the moneyed interests. Obviously there is something at stake for the coal industry when it came to Obama-era regulations, especially the Clean Power Plan. It really is a fight in which the polluting interests and the ideological interests coincide.”
Jacoby adds later, “At the EPA, there’s been this tremendous role reversal, where you really do see the regulated become the regulator. You see that elsewhere in the administration, but nowhere is it as clear as the EPA.”