The only thing missing was a thin chocolate mint wrapped in shiny green foil sitting on top of his pillow. Scott Pruitt, it turns out, can’t have everything.
Pruitt is the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and until a couple of days ago, he seemed politically bulletproof. That’s in part because Pruitt, 49 going on 63, is strategically polite and bland to a fault. The New Yorker calls it his “dad-next-door affability.” As an anti-environmental extremist, this makes Pruitt scary and effective. In one short year, Pruitt has repealed or delayed implementation of 30 environmental directives.
Thank God for the missing chocolate.
News just broke that Pruitt has been renting a two-bedroom condo in downtown D.C. for only $50 a night from the wife of a man who runs a lobbying firm that represents oil and gas companies over which the EPA has regulatory control. Federal law prohibits members of the president’s cabinet and White House staff from accepting lobbyist gifts. At the very least, it looks bad. In actual fact, it’s worse than it looks.
First, there’s the question of rent: $50 a night?! That wouldn’t get you a broom closet in a Dario Pini toolshed. Second, the lobby firm in question — Williams & Jensen — represents Enbridge Inc., a pipeline company that all last year was pressuring the federal government to allow it to increase the amount of oil pumped through its Alberta Clipper pipeline, which runs from Canada into the United States, by nearly double. For that to happen, the EPA would have to sign off.
It’s worth knowing that in 2010, a 40-foot stretch of pipeline owned by Enbridge ruptured over Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, vomiting up more than a million gallons of oil into a 35-mile stretch of that waterway. By 2014, cleanup costs exceeded $1.2 billion. The company was fined $61 million by the EPA, its second biggest fine ever. Like Gaviota’s pipeline rupture in 2015, the Enbridge pipe lacked an automatic shutoff valve. A Republican congressmember named Fred Upton was the representative for the city of Kalamazoo. Upton — along with Santa Barbara’s then congressmember, Lois Capps — successfully pushed legislation requiring automatic shut-off valves on oil pipelines. Small world.
Pruitt is also in the news for declaring war on California, this time over issues of air quality and fuel efficiency. In 2012, the Obama administration passed aggressive new fuel-efficiency standards that would require automobiles to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Admittedly, that’s a big jump from the 24.8 mpg we allegedly get now. Obama got the auto industry to swallow this in exchange for the $85 billion he authorized to bail out the auto industry in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession. Now some elements within that industry want to renege, but not all. Volvo and Ford have said they will stick with the Obama standards. Pruitt initially wanted to unveil his attack at a Chevy dealership in Virginia, but backed off when Chevy dealers — not wanting to be tarred with his brush — mutinied.
Many decades ago, the EPA granted California a waiver giving the state the legal right to set its own air-quality and fuel-efficiency standards. California, having already choked to death on its own air, has always pioneered clear-air initiatives. The state’s waiver allows 12 other states and the District of Columbia to follow suit. That constitutes about 30 percent of the auto market: That’s a lot of cars and trucks.
Pruitt — who had a soundproof telephone booth installed in his office — doesn’t believe in climate change. EPA staffers have been put on notice not to use that phrase, though references to “extreme events” are tolerated. For car manufacturers, building models to meet two different sets of standards constitutes an “extreme event.” Pruitt doesn’t think California should be able to call the shots for the entire country. California’s waiver is now in his crosshairs.
Six Democratic senators — including both of California’s — sent Pruitt a note expressing their inalterable opposition. The higher standards, they said, would save 2.5 billion barrels of oil, reduce greenhouse gases by six billion metric tons, and save consumers $1 trillion they would have otherwise paid at the pump.
Thanks to climate change, Santa Barbara’s natural feast-or-famine oscillation of extreme events has gotten significantly more violent: Worst drought in decades. Biggest forest fire in state history. A 200-year storm. Two debris flows in back-to-back years.
Pruitt must have reasons why he wants to subsidize auto-industry inefficiency, but it’s not cheap. According to California’s Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, victims of the 1/9 Debris Flow in Montecito have filed $421 million in insurance claims. The Thomas Fire as a whole has clocked in at $1.8 billion. Statewide, last November and December’s infernos have cost taxpayers $12.3 billion.
The automobile industry has always complained about onerous regulations, yet cars have been built, trucks sold, and the regulations paid off. From 1980 to 2014, for example, Santa Barbarans nearly doubled the number of miles they drove, yet the amount of volatile organic compounds in our air dropped by 90 percent; oxides of nitrogen dropped by 66 percent. In 2000, Santa Barbara County exceeded major air-quality thresholds more than 35 times. Last year, that happened just once.
Canada is also planning on the 54.5 mpg standard, and the European Union is shooting for 56.8 mpg. Other countries are poised to ban the sale of internal-combustion vehicles outright. Even China and India are jumping in. California Governor Jerry Brown denounced Pruitt’s proposal as a “cynical and meretricious abuse of power.” As usual, when Brown gets the last word, you need a dictionary to know what he means.
Try attractive, alluring, but conspicuously devoid of merit.
I love those chocolate mints.
Editor’s Note: The Poodle math was corrected to state volatile organics dropped by 90, not 900, percent, and oxides of nitrogen dropped 66, not 300, percent.