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Pruitt out, but not many changes expected at EPA

Environmental activists protest outside of the Harvard Club where Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt was scheduled to speak, June 20, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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The deregulatory priorities of the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, long sought by industry, are not expected to change in the post-Scott Pruitt era, according to supporters and foes of the administration and independent observers. Key Pruitt deputies remain in place at top levels of the agency, and the former energy lobbyist tapped to replace Pruitt has similar conservative credentials.

Pruitt resigned Thursday amid a wide range of investigations and accusations into his office expenditures and alleged use of staffers to pursue employment for his spouse, among other controversies. Most recently it was reported that Pruitt kept a “secret” version of his calendar to hide meetings with industry representatives. Currently, Pruitt faces more than a dozen open investigations, including his frequent taxpayer-funded travel to his home state of Oklahoma, his round-the-clock security detail, a $43,000 soundproof booth in his EPA office, staff pay raises provided over White House objections, and alleged retaliation against staff members who challenged his decisions.

Pruitt’s resignation will take effect Friday. President Trump has announced his replacement: former energy lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, currently the deputy EPA administrator. According to federal records, Wheeler has lobbied on behalf of the coal mining firm Murray Energy, the uranium mining company Energy Fuels Resources, and the electric utility Xcel Energy. Wheeler has also served as chief of staff to Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of Washington’s most outspoken skeptics of human-induced climate change. Wheeler has also worked at the EPA’s office regulating toxic chemicals.   

“I have no doubt that Andy will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda,” President Trump tweeted upon announcing the EPA leadership change.  

 “1. Same President. 2. Same agenda,” tweeted Steve Milloy, a former coal executive, Fox News contributor and member of the Trump EPA transition team. “3. New EPA chief (a past colleague of mine). 4. So … WINNING!!!”

Under Pruitt, several initiatives to relax or delay Obama-era regulations were already in the works. Those include rules over auto mileage efficiency standards, carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and chemical plant safety standards. 

EPA decisions already made include: the delaying of a proposed ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos, linked to developmental delays in children, and a delayed ban on certain uses of the toxic chemical trichloroethylene, classified by the agency as a “known carcinogen.”  

“The threat of additional harm to public health and the environment remains grave,” Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp said in a statement issued after Pruitt’s resignation. “We now face the stark reality of a coal lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, running the agency that is supposed to protect our air, water, and climate.”

One of the most-watched actions in the Wheeler-led EPA will be how the agency proceeds on carbon-emissions rules regarding power plants. Known as the Clean Power Plan, the initiative begun under President Obama is a high-profile target of the Trump administration.

The energy consultancy Clearview Energy Partners, in a research note issued after Pruitt’s resignation, stated: “Under Wheeler’s leadership, we continue to expect the EPA to propose and finalize a more limited version of the Clean Power Plan.”

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