Scott Pruitt Is Dead Wrong About Public Perception Of The EPA

Scott Pruitt, the recently confirmed head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this week. He announced his plans for rolling back regulations and said that what he wants for the agency is what the American people want. He is wrong.

Photo: Getty

Pruitt was a controversial pick to lead the EPA for many reasons, the most prominent being that he loves suing the agency and he takes his orders from the world's biggest polluters. This week, an enormous batch of damning email correspondence between Pruitt and the fossil fuel industry was released. And on Friday, it was confirmed that he lied under oath to US Congress about using a private email server while he was attorney general in Oklahoma.

Pruitt's appearance at CPAC was his first chance to give details about his plans since he's been sworn in. He indicated that at least three major regulations will be rolled back as soon as this week. Those are:

Because Pruitt now leads the EPA, he needs to take a step back from explicitly arguing against its mission. He wouldn't say that the agency should be completely abolished but agreed that critics are "justified" when they call for its elimination. For now, he's framing his elimination of regulations as an attempt to take the EPA back to its core mission of protecting America's air and water. He said that "The previous administration was so focused on climate change and so focused on CO2, some of those other priorities were left behind".

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Pruitt would only need to check with the EPA to find analysis of the ways that climate change harms the quality of air and water. But we could spend all day rebutting various wrongheaded details from his CPAC interview.

Let's just look at one remarkable assertion that Pruitt made. "People across the country look at the EPA at the way they look at [the Internal Revenue Service]," he said. "We want to change that."

If by people, he means his friends in the fossil fuel industry, he's probably correct. But the public at large does not generally hold an unfavourable view of the EPA.

Take a look at Gallup surveys that go back decades and you'll see fluctuating public attitudes about the environment and climate change. Currently, a majority of the public understands the dangers of climate change and the need for strong regulations that protect our environment. A sampling of data from March of 2016:

  • What should be given greater priority?

    Protection of the environment - 56 per cent

    Economic growth - 37 per cent

  • Thinking about what is said in the news, in your view is the seriousness of global warming?

    Generally underestimated - 40 per cent

    Generally exaggerated - 34 per cent

    Generally correct - 25 per cent

In category after category, the majority of the public agrees with the 97 per cent of actively publishing scientists — climate change is serious and caused by humans. And despite the fact that only 42 per cent of the public consider themselves environmentalists, 57 per cent believe that the US government is doing too little to protect the environment.

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How about abolishing the EPA? Well, a 2013 PPP poll was commissioned by the Natural Resources Defence Council when a US government budget fight virtually shutdown the agency. It found that Americans were outraged. Among the numerous statistics in favour of the EPA, the poll found:

  • "60 per cent of Americans think the EPA is doing the right amount or not enough to protect our health and environment."
  • "65 per cent of Americans oppose a government shutdown that interferes with EPA's work to develop standards limiting carbon pollution from power plants."

How does that compare to the IRS? Pew Research found in 2013, that 44 per cent of Americans had a favourable view of the tax collecting agency. Compare that with the 62 per cent of Americans who had a generally favourable view of the EPA.

More recently, Pew found in 2015 that the public's biggest criticism of the IRS is that corporations don't pay their fair share of taxes — another point that would likely find Pruitt's corporate friends at odds with the majority of Americans.

As an appointed official, Pruitt won't directly need to worry about the public's perception of his performance. But his boss, the US president, will. Considering the fact that Trump has historically low favorability ratings for an incoming president, one might think there's nowhere to go from here but up. If this administration has taught us anything so far, it's to expect the unexpected.

[Bloomberg, The Guardian, Pew, NRDC, Gallup]

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