Mary Anne Hitt
Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign
A rare thing will happen Tuesday: Scott Pruitt will face questions from Congress about his time as head of the EPA — a year packed with scandals and assaults on bedrock clean air and water laws. We’re watching closely to see whether he answers those questions, or whether Congress will settle for another round of Pruitt’s platitudes.
Despite being the driving force behind the Trump administration’s relentless attacks on our environment and our communities, Pruitt is clearly petrified of criticism.
He’s wasted thousands in taxpayer dollars on a soundproof phone booth, he’s kept his schedule out of public view, and newly-revealed emails show his staff works overtime to keep him from answering questions from reporters and the public.
He’s also dodged those who are most responsible for holding him accountable, having testified just once before Congress since getting confirmed.
That testimony was a frustrating experience for most. That’s because, when confronted by questions about his record, Pruitt reliably responds with platitudes and meaningless catchphrases, using buzzwords to obscure the reality that he is allowing polluters to dump their toxics anywhere they please impunity.
Linguistic gymnastics are nothing new for politicians, but Pruitt’s sojourns into the English language are so opaque and contradictory at times that even the most seasoned Washington observers leave scratching their heads. The American people deserve better. Lawmakers can’t let him slither away without uttering a meaningful thing. But, one way or the other, we’re here to help with this simple guide to translate some of Pruitt’s favorite platitudes.
Perhaps Pruitt’s favorite catchphrase is “back to basics.” It’s a term he throws out to justify his moves to gut every public health safeguard he touches. It’s his way of pretending he has a philosophy other than doing whatever he can to help fossil fuel polluters.
Pruitt’s moves to gut the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act don’t send us “back to basics” — they send us “back to the 19th century.” Pruitt’s moves roll back decades of environmental progress and attack laws that were established because our rivers were catching on fire and our cities were contaminated by filthy air.
Another classic Pruitt platitude is “cooperative federalism.” Think of this as “cooperating with corporate polluters.” This is Pruitt’s excuse that asserts he can gut federal pollution safeguards because states will step in and pass their own rules.
It’s not that simple, as pollution crosses state boundaries and polluters would face wildly varying standards in each state. Pruitt and the polluters pushing this phrase know that.
Furthermore, we can’t trust Pruitt’s words when the budget he backs slashes funding for states to enforce environmental laws and zeroes out money to cleaning up places like the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay.
Plus, he touts his support for states having the right to set their own policies, but then pressures California to lower its statewide fuel economy standards. Pruitt seems to lean heavily on this buzzword, but he then criticizes and threatens states that show real leadership.
Indeed, if Pruitt truly respected federalism and followed the “rule of law” — another old Pruitt stand-by — he’d be acting to tackle climate change. The Supreme Court has ruled three times that the EPA must act to cut carbon pollution to protect our families and communities. Therefore, according to the rule of law, EPA must act. But Pruitt, of course, doesn’t mean what he says.
He won’t even acknowledge the reality of climate change and even halted the Clean Power Plan, which sets the first-ever federal limits on carbon pollution from power plants.
The list of double talk terms goes on and on. Who knew that “regulatory certainty” would be preached by an EPA administrator who throws out regulations already on the books?
Who knew that a man who says “process matters” over and over again would be sued so many times for trying to delay and obstruct life-saving safeguards?
The overriding assumption is that words don’t mean much to Pruitt, and he is inevitably going to do whatever polluting industries ask for and then make up some platitude to justify it.
Pruitt likes to say “the future ain’t what it used to be.” We’ll give him that one. Under his destructive watch at the EPA, our air and water will get dirtier, our communities will get sicker, and our climate will be threatened more than was projected just 14 months ago, before his tenure began. And, with all these Pruitt platitudes obscuring the facts, one thing is certain — his words can’t be trusted.
Mary Anne Hitt is the director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.