Energy & Environment

EPA’s Pruitt: Bring back ‘true environmentalism’


When it comes to environmentalism, Scott Pruitt thinks environmentalists have it all wrong.

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Trump has been on a quest to redefine the mission of the agency and, in the process, redefine what it means to be a guardian of the environment. 

Pruitt, the former Republican attorney general of Oklahoma, has said in recent public appearances and interviews that environmentalism ought to mean using natural resources like fossil fuels and agricultural products to their fullest potential, while being mindful of their impact. 

It’s meant as a sharp contrast, and perhaps a direct conservative challenge, to the established environmentalism of the last few decades, which has been largely dominated by the left. Green activists have long fought to reduce the use of fossil fuels, noting their impact on climate change and air quality. 

“I’ve been asking the question lately, what is true environmentalism? What do you consider true environmentalism? And from my perspective, it’s environmental stewardship, not prohibition,” Pruitt said last month at an event hosted by the conservative Federalist Society.

“We have been blessed, as a country, with tremendous natural resources. … I believe that we have an obligation to feed the world and power the world, with a sensitivity, as far as environmental stewardship, for future generations,” he said.

“But for the past few years, we have been told it’s prohibition, it’s put up a fence, it’s do not touch.”

He had a similar take in a cover story published in the conservative National Review this month. 

“If you are of the side that says we exist to serve creation, then you have no trouble putting up a fence and saying ‘do not use,’ ” he said. “Even though people may starve, may freeze, though developing countries may never develop their economies.”

Mainstream environmentalists scoff at Pruitt’s argument. 

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a leading climate change activist in the Senate, laughed audibly at the idea, following it up with, “that laugh was on the record.”

“You don’t get to make it so because you say it is,” he said. “Up is down, left is right — no. Words have meanings.” 

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, had trouble taking the idea seriously. 

“I find myself wondering whether Scott Pruitt actually believes this stuff, or if he’s a careful student of George Orwell. If he repeats something enough, again and again and again, at least some portion of the public will begin to believe it,” said Brune, whose group is the largest environmental organization in the country when counted by membership.

Asked if Pruitt’s attempted redefinition angered him, Brune said it didn’t.

“His statements cause me to shake my head and almost chuckle,” Brune said. “What he says doesn’t piss me off. What he says has me worried about our country’s future.” 

Pruitt’s supporters say he raises good points. Republicans have long felt that the left has unfairly taken hold of environmentalism and that conservatives who care about clean air and clean water need to reclaim the movement and be recognized for their contributions.

“I think he’s right, and I think his perspective is long overdue,” said Ed Russo, an ally of President Trump and an environmental consultant who has worked with the Trump Organization for more than a decade, frequently on environmental matters related to its golf courses. 

Russo cited coal policies, along with efforts to encourage cleaner production and use of coal, as prime examples of conservative environmental policies that have not gotten a fair hearing.

“For the past 10 years, there were certain aspects of energy that you couldn’t talk about in Washington, coal being one of them,” he said. 

Russo, who penned a book last year declaring Trump an “environmental hero,” opined that a focus on climate change in recent years has been a major source of the divide, detracting attention away from cleaning the nation’s air, water and soil. 

“I think that global warming has been a very hurtful distraction for the environmental community,” he said.

“The focus must be redirected from these nuanced initiatives to the cleaning up of the disastrous environmental impacts that we’ve created over the last 50 years.” 

Behind Pruitt’s rhetoric is his policy agenda. An outspoken skeptic of the consensus scientific view of climate change, Pruitt has taken dozens of actions to roll back Obama administration policies on climate, air pollution, water pollution, chemical safety and more.

In the process, he’s become a lightning rod for the left, with Democrats pointing to the EPA’s agenda as proof of Trump’s disdain for crucial government protections.

Meanwhile, Trump’s supporters have lauded Pruitt, both for his actions and for what he has done to fight liberals — including his mission to take “environmentalism” from them.

“He’s right on target, and he’s being realistic,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a close home-state ally of Pruitt’s. 

“There’s no way we can run this machine called America without fossil fuels.”

The idea also aligns with Pruitt’s stated environmental goals. Like most conservatives, Pruitt says he wants to prioritize cleaning up air quality and contaminated lands, which he sees as affecting people more acutely, directly and immediately than climate change.

Aseem Prakash, director of Washington University’s Center for Environmental Politics, said that using resources responsibly has a place in environmental stewardship. For example, some experts argue that current policies make it difficult to remove brush from forests, which fuels forest fires.

“So in some ways, a puritanical approach to the environment may actually lead to more destruction of the environment, under certain circumstances,” Prakash said, with the caveat that that is an “extremely sympathetic” way to read Pruitt. 

But he dismissed Pruitt’s attempts to redefine environmentalism as little more than political maneuvering. 

“This is not an intellectual argument. I don’t think he is trying to redefine environmentalism at an intellectual level,” he said.

“This is pandering to a political constituency, and using environmentalism and fossil fuels to fuel polarization.” 

Prakash contrasted Pruitt’s arguments with those of the free-market environmentalism community. That school of thought recognizes the same environmental problems that left-leaning greens do, but pushes small-government policies to solve them, as opposed to regulations and policies that grow government.

But Pruitt is no free-market environmentalist, Prakash argued.

“I would welcome an intellectual engagement. But what I think Scott Pruitt is doing is not an intellectual engagement, because there are no ideas there. There are a bunch of slogans that have not been carefully thought through.”

Tags Brian Schatz Climate change skepticism and denial Donald Trump Environmental policy in the United States Environmentalism Fossil fuel Jim Inhofe Scott Pruitt Scott Pruitt United States Environmental Protection Agency

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