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By Brian Dabbs
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is stumping for the White House in high-profile settings.
He spoke after President Donald Trump’s announcement that the U.S. was withdrawing from the Paris climate accord. Pruitt, a fierce opponent of the pact, then fielded questions from the White House news media June 2, stressing that the deal posed a threat to the U.S. economy. He refused to address Trump’s position on climate change.
That publicity is highly unusual for an Environmental Protection Agency chief, particularly in the context of an international accord. But the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement reflects more of a fulfillment of a campaign promise than a Pruitt power play, the specialists said.
“I think the greatest factor is, the political team at the White House needed a win,” David Goldwyn, an Atlantic Council energy expert and former State Department official under former Secretary Hillary Clinton, told Bloomberg BNA. “Tax, health care, and infrastructure are slipping away, and a change in trade policy is shrinking and becoming much more modest. They are desperate for some symbol they are keeping their promises.”
Democratic lawmakers, environmental groups, and many of the country’s largest corporations, including oil giants, criticized the decision. But conservative groups and news publications showered Trump with plaudits.
The Paris accord “is a drag on our economy and a bad deal for American workers,” Tea Party Patriots President Jenny Beth Martin said in a statement. “We could lose over 6 million industrial jobs, including more than 3 million manufacturing jobs, by 2040 if we insisted on sticking with the terrible deal negotiated by the Obama Administration and signed out of desperation.”
Pruitt has said the accord will devastate the U.S. fossil fuel industry, along with the currently-stayed Clean Power Plan. That position made him a convenient showpiece for withdrawal, some said.
“Pruitt is strongly committed to the ‘America First’ ethos,” Kevin Book, head of research at ClearView Energy Partners, told Bloomberg BNA. “His speech may have been a more significant statement on nationalism than environmental policy itself.”
The pact would have instructed the U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent below its 2005 level by 2025. Withdrawal will take more than three years.
Normally, the secretary of state would play a prominent role in policy decisions related to an international accord. But despite Pruitt’s high profile in the immediate wake of the decision, White House plans to limit EPA’s authority on a number of environmental issues indicates his stock won’t rise in the coming weeks and months, the environmental specialists said.
Trump and Pruitt argue that EPA regulations stifle the U.S. economy, and the agency chief is continuing a campaign to dismantle Obama-era rules. The EPA is reviewing rules defining which bodies of water are subject to federal regulation and limiting methane emissions in oil and gas operations, as well as those setting ozone and fuel economy standards.
But the agency faces a significant challenge in executing the environmental rollbacks, and the White House isn’t helping much because it hasn’t nominated key personnel to head the individual EPA program offices. Pruitt still lacks a deputy and regional administrators as well. The White House budget also makes deep cuts in Superfund and state grant accounts, both of which Pruitt has singled out as important functions.
That shows Pruitt isn’t swaying White House decision-making on broad policy or even on the Paris decision specifically, Scott Slesinger, legislative director at the National Resources Defense Council, told Bloomberg BNA.
“He was chosen [to play a role in the decision] because he agrees with Trump. Trump didn’t pick him to influence Trump,” Slesinger said.
A White House spokeswoman didn’t respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment.
Trump launched the process to quash U.S. participation in the pact following an extensive debate with his advisers.
“The discussion over the past several weeks has been one of a thoughtful deliberation,” Pruitt said June 2. "[Trump] heard many voices, voices across a wide spectrum of vantage points, and the president made an informed and, I think, thoughtful decision for the country’s benefit.”
White House Counsel Don McGahn and senior adviser Stephen Bannon joined Pruitt in backing withdrawal. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil CEO, Chief Economic Advisor Gary Cohn and other core members of Trump’s team, including his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, opposed leaving the deal.
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