Scott Pruitt is out at EPA, and not a moment too soon. His almost comical cascade of ethical scandals were eclipsed only by his disdain for the office he was tasked with leading. A man like Pruitt—who repeatedly demonstrated disdain for taxpayers and for his staff—has no place in public service. Government is better without him.
Yet for those who care about the environment, Pruitt had one virtue: He was largely inept. Pruitt came to DC full of anti-environmentalist bluster. But he quickly made a boatload of enemies, and hastily issued a number of de-regulatory orders that were almost immediately struck down by federal courts. To be sure, Pruitt was a loud (and aggressive) ally of corporate polluters. All told, though, he was never a particularly effective ally of fossil-fuel interests. That was true even before Pruitt’s tenure at EPA. As Oklahoma Attorney General, he sued the Obama EPA some 14 times. Almost all of those lawsuits failed.
In light of that track record, Pruitt’s departure poses potentially significant dangers. His interim replacement at EPA, Andrew Wheeler, is a former coal lobbyist with a reputation for being a smooth, careful Washington operator. Though Wheeler is reported to be “much smarter” than Pruitt, he does seem to share his former boss’s zeal for rolling back environmental protections. If you’re somebody who prioritizes clean air and clean water, that’s not a great combination. Sure, Wheeler might not make the rookie mistakes Pruitt did, like trying to rush through regulatory rollbacks without following proper procedures. But in the long run, a careful, deliberate version of Pruitt’s agenda could be more likely to survive judicial scrutiny. That could have disastrous consequences for the planet.
What’s more, without Pruitt’s attention-grabbing ethical lapses, the EPA’s work might once again fly under the radar. That’s not a good thing. Some of the most dangerous work currently being done by EPA involves technical questions that—unlike $43,000 phone booths—don’t easily grab public attention. As I’ve previously written, for example, EPA is sneakily attempting to disqualify from EPA consideration two landmark health studies which justify regulation of deadly particulate matter. And last month, EPA invited public comment as to how it should calculate the cost and benefits of regulation. That lays the groundwork for EPA to forbid agency consideration of “co-benefits”—the real-world benefits that accrue as an indirect result of regulating a particular pollutant.
These are wonky issue which are unlikely to grab front-page headlines. But the human costs they threaten to impose are quite real. Were EPA to (1) discredit longitudinal health studies, and (2) forbid consideration of co-benefits, it could ultimately result in EPA taking action that could cost tens of thousands of lives annually. Better, perhaps, not to let the agency work in peace and quiet.
None of this is praise Scott Pruitt, or to bemoan his departure. Indeed, despite his many failures in court, Pruitt has already imposed significant harms on imposed on the planet. Most significantly, Pruitt played a leading role in convincing President Trump to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords. In all events, there is simply no place in government for a person as ethically challenged as Scott Pruitt.
Yet in light of Pruitt’s ineffectiveness, there is every possibility that the risk to the planet could be magnified if the new (and more competent) EPA administrator pursues a similar agenda. And with President Trump repeatedly demonstrating personal antipathy towards environmental regulation, that seems highly likely.
Pruitt’s departure, in short, is warranted and long-overdue. But given what likely lies ahead, it is hardly cause to breathe easy.
 A classic example of co-benefits came when the Obama Administration issued regulations limiting mercury emissions from power plants. Because reducing mercury emissions also inevitably reduces particulate matter emissions, the Obama Administration took the “co-benefits” of reducing particulate matter into account when considering the costs and benefits of its proposed rule.