By Tom Baxter
Before Scott Pruitt resigned last week from his job as EPA administrator, some wags were saying former HHS Secretary Tom Price must be kicking himself for leaving over a few hundred thousand dollars’ worth of plane tickets. That how far the standard has fallen in less than a year.
Maybe it’s something in all that granite. Pruitt is far from the first and certainly not the only public official to flame out in an excess of personal entitlement after arriving in Washington. By comparison with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, short-selling stocks when he knew negative stories about holdings were going to be published, Pruitt was a relative piker. But he had a certain flair in the way he flaunted the rules that caused his name to rise to the top of a crowded field.
It’s much easier to highlight the hubris in Pruitt’s sound-proof phone booth and flashing-light rides around Washington, than it is to explain why short-selling stocks you know are likely to fall in value isn’t a perfectly normal way to divest oneself of a controversial holding.
Eventually, Pruitt drew enough attention to prompt House Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee chair Trey Gowdy to request separate interviews with his top aides, as well as emails and documents. He’d drawn a gusher of ethics investigations already, but when his aides had to lawyer up and testify truthfully about their boss, Pruitt’s unraveling began in earnest.
Paradoxically, Pruitt’s departure isn’t good news for environmentalists. It’s striking, for one thing, how little the offenses which brought him down had to do with his enthusiastic efforts to scuttle the agency he headed. With Pruitt’s departure, opponents of the adminstration’s environmental policies lose the most flagrant symbol of the administration’s excesses, in exchange for a much more seasoned Washington hand, Andrew Wheeler. Pruitt’s rollbacks of environmental regulations was sweeping, but they have drawn several court challenges. Wheeler, a former EPA administrator and coal company lobbyist, could be much more effective, with the inevitable consequences for the environment.
Harvard Law School’s Environmental and Energy Law Program maintains an online tracker of Trump Administration rollbacks. While Pruitt worked hard to make himself the poster child of environmental deregulation, the tracker shows that this is a project being energetically pursued within several federal agencies.
The tracker also illustrates something that is obvious, but nevertheless worth keeping in mind. Any number of industries may benefit from the relaxation of environmental rules, but it’s the extractive industries, the drillers of oil and gas and the miners of coal, which are the chief beneficiaries. The relaxation of fuel economy standards was viewed as something the auto industry pressed for, but it was also a boon to the drillers and refiners. Pruitt, who has deep ties to the oil and gas industry in his home state of Oklahoma, was a perfect choice to please this sector, not least because he called so much attention to himself.
The passion for oil, gas and coal extends to a coolness toward other energy sources. Among those not pleased with Pruitt were the corn state Republican senators, including Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, who thought Pruitt was taking sides with gasoline refiners who wanted to relax the ethanol standard. Corn won this one: In a bow to ethanol interests, President Trump last month scuttled a new ethanol agreement which Grassley vehemently opposed.
The administration has been cool to solar energy as well, imposing a 30 percent tariff on solar panels manufactured in China last January, in one of the first shots of the emerging trade war.
The solar panel tariff is predicted to reduce solar installations in the U.S. by 11 percent over the next five years, but it has also prompted some foreign manufacturers to relocate to the United States.
Hanwha Q CELLS, a Korean solar manufacturer which owns plants in Malaysia and China, announced in May that it is building a $150 million plant in Dalton which is expected to create 500 jobs and be completed next year.
In other words, one of the companies affected by the U.S. tariff simply moved its operations here. It will pay wages to U.S. workers, with the profits — likely to be substantial given the continued demand for solar — going back to Korea. That may not be everybody’s idea of making America great again, but the economy works in strange ways. Maybe next we can snag an Italian motorcycle manufacturer.