Pruitt also stated that “I would not agree that [carbon dioxide is] a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” a comment that is at odds with the scientific consensus on climate change. -- Timothy Cama, The Hill, March 13, 2017
During Pruitt’s time as attorney general, Oklahoma developed the worst human-made-earthquake problem in the country. The state as a whole was slow to deal with the problem, and, for many years, it did not admit the quakes had a human origin. After that, it neglected to rapidly slow the rate of wastewater injection. This has allowed medium-scale earthquakes to continue: In November, a 5.0-magnitude quake damaged the structures of downtown Cushing, Oklahoma. -- Robinson Meyers, Atlantic, Jan. 18m 2917.
How the EPA chief could gut the agency’s climate change regulations
In an interview Thursday with CNBC, Scott Pruitt cast doubt on his own agency’s 2009 conclusion that greenhouse gases “endanger both the public health and the public welfare of current and future generations.”
The so-called endangerment finding was the backbone of the Obama administration’s climate change regulations. Under Obama, the EPA argued that the 2009 finding compelled it to issue greenhouse gas emissions limits for sectors like cars, trucks and power plants.
But as Pruitt and President Trump look to unwind Obama’s major climate policies, the endangerment finding might be imperiled.
“You know what’s interesting about the situation with CO2, Joe, is we’ve had a Supreme Court decision in 2007 and then the endangerment finding that you’re making reference to in 2009,” Pruitt told CNBC host Joe Kernan, referring to the Supreme Court’s Massachusetts v. EPA decision — the court ruled that greenhouse gases are air pollutants under the Clean Air Act and the EPA has to determine whether they should be regulated.
“Nowhere in the continuum, nowhere in the equation, has Congress spoken. The legislative branch has not addressed this issue at all,” Pruitt said.
“The decision in 2007 was not that the EPA had to regulate. The decision in 2007 was they needed to make a decision.”
Pruitt also stated that “I would not agree that [carbon dioxide is] a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” a comment that is at odds with the scientific consensus on climate change.
His comments contrast with what he told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee at his January confirmation hearing.
“That is the law of the land,” he said of the Supreme Court ruling and the endangerment finding.
In March 2016, Trump said in a survey from the fossil fuel industry-funded American Energy Alliance that he would review the finding if elected.
Repealing the finding would undermine the basis for some of Obama’s environmental agenda and wipe out a major argument in favor of government regulation of such emissions.
But experts say rolling back the endangerment finding would be a difficult task. The EPA would have to undertake a lengthy rulemaking process — complete with notice and public comment — gather an extensive body of science to justify the change, and then face nearly certain court challenges.
“This would be a very steep climb, because what he said goes against decades of science showing that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and is warming the planet,” said Noah Sachs, a law professor a the University of Richmond and member scholar at the Center for Progressive Reform.
Neither Pruitt nor Trump has committed to a review since the inauguration. But Pruitt’s Thursday comments are stirring hopes and fears.
“I think that Administrator Pruitt’s comments are suggestive of their thinking, and eventually they will decide that it is really necessary to reopen the finding,” said Myron Ebell, an outspoken climate change skeptic who leads energy and environment policy at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute. Ebell also led the transition efforts for Trump at the EPA.
“I would be hopeful that they do an honest assessment of it. The Obama endangerment finding is a joke,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), vice chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“It was shoddy, it was full of half-facts. So if Administrator Pruitt wants to go back and do it right, God bless him, and I’ll support him.”
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), the Energy Committee’s top Democrat, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Pruitt, who battled the EPA in court as Oklahoma’s attorney general, went after the finding.
“I’m convinced that Scott Pruitt was sent to EPA in order to undermine all the environmental protections and international agreements however he thinks he can accomplish things,” he said.
“I don’t think anything’s off-limits for him. I don’t think he even believes in the EPA.”
To roll the finding back, the administration would likely have to provide scientific proof that greenhouse gases do not harm the public health and welfare, or that regulatory action could not mitigate that harm.
Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant in the same way that particulate matter or nitrogen oxides are, since breathing it in normal amounts is not dangerous.
But the Supreme Court found that the Clean Air Act had a “capacious” definition of “air pollutant,” and that due to climate change, carbon dioxide fit well within that category.
The finding has already withstood court scrutiny. A coalition of states and industry groups sued the EPA over the 2009 finding, and it was upheld by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 2012. The Supreme Court declined to take the case.
Separately, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) tried unsuccessfully to have it overturned in Congress.
“It’s impossible to compile a record that would undo the endangerment finding, because it was based on sound science,” said Joanne Spalding, the Sierra Club’s head climate attorney.
“It is based on the scientific consensus that has been building and strengthening over the years since the endangerment finding was made,” she said. “Everything points to reaffirming that finding. There is no science out there that would allow the agency to withdraw it.”
Sachs said federal courts would scrutinize the scientific backing for any withdrawal.
“In administrative law, agencies are allowed to change their minds, that’s the natural flow of politics,” he said. “But they have to support their new positions with adequate scientific evidence. And I don’t think that the EPA can do that in this case.”
The Trump administration’s allies are confident that science is on their side.
Ebell said the 2009 finding was not compliant with the Information Quality Act because it used climate models that are not reliable.
“No matter how much they talk about how much the models are improving, it’s still true that the models cannot yield predictions of the future, because the climate is a nonlinear, chaotic system,” he said.
To Barton, the scientific questions have a simple answer: Carbon dioxide is not dangerous.
“I don’t think it’s a harm to humankind. CO2 is a naturally occurring compound. I am creating it as I’m talking to you,” he said. “We’ve got to believe all those esoteric theory about what’s going to happen 100 years from now to think it is.”
Could Scott Pruitt Have Fixed Oklahoma's Earthquake Epidemic?
Critics say he could have done much more to help the state’s citizens.
Scott Pruitt is Oklahoma’s attorney general and Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He has an interesting environmental record, to say the least.
In the past few years, he has cast doubt on one of the central findings of climate science. He has sued the EPA to block it from enforcing rules against regional smog and airborne mercury pollution. At one point, he copy-and-pasted a letter from an oil company onto official state letterhead, added his signature, and mailed it to the agency he will soon run.
He even has a long-running kerfuffle about chickenshit. Drew Edmondson, Pruitt’s predecessor, alleged that Tyson Foods and other poultry companies were dumping too much chicken manure into the Illinois River. The river had become choked with toxic algae. But after becoming attorney general in 2011, Pruitt dropped that case, downgrading it to a voluntary investigation. He simultaneously dismantled his office’s in-house environmental-protection unit. The poultry industry later donated at least $40,000 to his reelection campaign.
Amid all of this, though, some critics have focused on an environmental problem of a more cinematic variety: human-made earthquakes.
Oklahoma has been ailed this decade by an “induced-earthquake” problem, the consequences of which have wrecked walls, windows, and property values around the state. In a normal year—that is, in almost any before 2009—the state only saw one or two quakes. It now experiences one to two quakes per day. In 2015, it endured 857 earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or higher, more than struck the rest of the lower 48 states combined.
These tremors are not naturally occurring. They are caused by wastewater injection, a process in which million of gallons of salty water are pumped deep underground. This water is often a by-product of fracking, the natural-gas mining process that has spread across the country and revolutionized the U.S. energy industry.
During Pruitt’s time as attorney general, Oklahoma developed the worst human-made-earthquake problem in the country. The state as a whole was slow to deal with the problem, and, for many years, it did not admit the quakes had a human origin. After that, it neglected to rapidly slow the rate of wastewater injection. This has allowed medium-scale earthquakes to continue: In November, a 5.0-magnitude quake damaged the structures of downtown Cushing, Oklahoma.
Johnson Bridgwater, the director of the Sierra Club’s Oklahoma chapter, says that the failure to address the quakes lies with every state official, Pruitt included.
“There are various places where the attorney general’s office could have stepped in to fix this overall problem,” he told me. “Its job is to protect citizens. Other states were proactive and took these issues on.” He criticized Pruitt for staying “completely silent” in the face of a major environmental problem for the state’s taxpayers.
Bridgwater’s concerns have been echoed by the national Sierra Club. “When a 2015 report from the Oklahoma Geological Survey found a direct link between oil and gas mining and increased destruction and property damage from earthquakes, Pruitt did nothing, even though as attorney general he is responsible for protecting Oklahomans,” said a statement from the organization last month.
This allegation is true, as it goes. There was a human-made earthquake epidemic in Pruitt’s home state, and the best thing you can say about his response is that it didn’t exist. But how much responsibility did Pruitt plausibly bear for the slow-moving disaster? And what could he have done about it?
Oklahoma is not the only state to have seen a surge in earthquakes this decade. Nearly every state in its region—Texas, Kansas, Arkansas, and Colorado—watched the number of earthquakes rise in the years after 2008. So did other states that embraced hydraulic fracturing, like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York.
Each of these states responded to the phenomenon differently, says Cliff Frohlich, a seismologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “If I were to generalize, I’d say it depends strongly on the importance of petroleum in the various states,” he told me. “The states that have been more sluggish—or careful—are the states that have a big financial investment in oil and gas. But at the same time, those were also the states that had more history with it.”
The various state responses present a natural experiment, of sorts. Arkansas saw temblors spike in frequency before Oklahoma did. It had a handful of earthquakes in 2008, then 37 in 2009, and then a whopping 772 in 2010. In July 2011, the state’s panicked oil and gas commission issued a blanket moratorium on new injection wells, and the epidemic immediately began to subside.
Texas and Oklahoma have been more circumspect. In some cases, this caution came from a long history of oil drilling in the state. “People in the oil patch would say, with truth, that they’d been pumping stuff into the ground for decades and it had not caused earthquakes,” Frohlich says.
Oklahoma was also hurt by its own geology. In Texas, underground wastewater tends to travel to the nearest fault and cause small slips. This triggers local, shallow quakes that don’t travel far. But in Oklahoma, the rock can absorb wastewater for years without showing it. Over time, all that built-up fluid pressurizes entire formations and causes deep faults to unclamp and slip. This creates “swarms” or “clouds” of earthquakes, as dozens of minor but harmful quakes strike the same region repeatedly over a matter of days.