New EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt embarrassed himself repeatedly on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, who kept Pruitt on the hot seat for 14 minutes as he pressed to get past Pruitt’s paper-thin talking points. Wallace, who appeared to know more about the subject matter than Pruitt, came right out of the gate asking what Trump’s rollbacks of Obama’s environmental initiatives will mean for public health and for America’s climate leadership. Pruitt’s responses demonstrated how little he actually pays attention to EPA’s missions to protect public health and the environment.
Here is a reality-check on some of Pruitt’s most eye-popping statements, with each rated on a scale of one to four smokestacks (for more information on the debut of the ‘Smokestack Grading Scale,’ see the end of the post).
Does Pruitt Have A Plan to Protect Public Health?
WALLACE: You're giving me a regulatory answer, a political answer. You’re not giving me a health answer. I talked about 90,000 fewer asthma attacks, 300,000 fewer missed days in school and work. The Obama Clean Power Plan called -- said that carbon pollution from the power sector would be reduced by 30 percent. It would be one-third lower than it was in 2005. Here's what the American Lung Association says, "Half of all Americans now live in counties with unhealthy air." You talk about all the regulatory overreach, but the question is, there are 166 million people living in unclean air and you are going to remove some of the pollution restrictions, which will make the air even worse.
PRUITT: Well, Chris, a couple things, we are actually pre-1994 levels with respect to our CO2 footprint. So, this country is doing far better than most across the globe. As you know, also since 1980, we've got a 65 percent reduction in those key air pollutants, SOx and NOx and particulate matter and ozone, while at the same time growing our economy.
Reality Check: Pruitt never answers the question about how he intends to protect public health while rolling back public health protections. The statistics he uses to fend off Wallace are largely correct, but if anything they prove Wallace’s point that we have a lot to lose by going backwards. Thanks in large part to clear goals and standards set by the EPA and the Clean Air Act, America has indeed seen decades of successful innovation that has reduced air pollution while growing our economy.
The CO2 statistics are calculated to make it look like the trend of CO2 reductions has been happening for decades. In reality, however, emissions grew steadily until they peaked in 2007. The CO2 reductions that Pruitt cited occurred mostly during President Obama’s administration as he implemented a plan to reduce pollution and the nation made big leaps toward clean energy — the same plan that Trump and Pruitt have promised to roll back.
It’s one thing to dodge the question, but it’s especially weak to hide behind the success of Obama’s initiatives to justify erasing it all. Pruitt’s attempting a complicated trick here — not only trying to sell a bottle of snake oil, but breaking the bottle during the pitch. It doesn’t convince Wallace, and I think he showed his true colors about what he does and does not care about.
Score: TWO SMOKESTACKS for dodging the most important question of the whole interview.
Has Coal Reduced U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions?
WALLACE: But don't you think the fact that we have these coal power plants belching carbon emissions into the air, you don't think that had -- plays a role?
PRUITT: I think that we've done it better than anybody in the world at burning coal clean, in a clean fashion. The innovative and technological advances that we've seen along with natural gas production and generating electricity, it all contributed to a CO2 footprint that’s pre-1994.
Reality Check: Wallace made a simple proposition that is backed by facts. In 2015, coal provided one-third of U.S. electricity generation, but accounted for 71% of the carbon pollution from power plants. By linking the decline in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to burning coal “in a clean fashion,” Pruitt is throwing science to the wind. Carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants are down 25% from 1994, for one reason: the amount of electricity generated from coal is also down 25%. It isn’t cleaner. We are using less coal as power companies have shifted to cheaper natural gas and renewables, and as energy efficiency leaps have reduced electricity demand. Now Pruitt and Trump want to use more coal. There is no question that this will lead to more carbon pollution, not less. Pruitt chose to pretend otherwise.
Score: FOUR SMOKESTACKS
Did the Paris Climate Agreement Cause a “Contraction” In Our Economy?
WALLACE: You talk about the Paris Accords, which do call for reductions by China and other countries by 2030. And, in fact, China has already begun reducing its carbon emissions from coal power plants as you well. President Xi in January said that the Paris Climate Accord should remain enforced. As the chief environmental officer for the Trump administration, can you make the same commitment to the Paris climate accords?
PRUITT: Engagement internationally is very important. To demonstrate the leadership that we have shown on this issue with China and India and other nations is very important. Those discussions should ensue. But what Paris represents is bad deal for this country. We front-loaded our costs. China and India back-loaded theirs. That caused a contraction in our economy.
Reality Check: This is a new one. Pruitt seems to be trying to connect the Paris deal from December 2015 with a blip of sluggish economic growth that started 3 months prior. There is nothing to substantiate this claim, and the timing proves the lie. In terms of ‘backloading’ or ‘frontloading,’ Pruitt has already pointed out that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have fallen. He seems to conveniently forget this good news when it comes to lamenting the idea that America is acting more quickly than China. America’s leadership has helped secure commitments from developed and developing nations alike to reduce greenhouse gas emissions based on each country’s own national policies. This is the first agreement that achieves the long-held goal of both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to ensure that all nations – including China– are committed to action. It would be foolhardy to squander what our leadership has secured.
Score: THREE SMOKESTACKS
Is EPA’s Clean Power Plan Causing “No Progress” on Clean Air?
PRUITT: Clean air is not advanced because you have litigation such as the Clean Power Plan. You have stays of enforcement against that Clean Power Plan and there's no progress being made with clean air and we are also spending money on litigation.
Reality Check: Pruitt’s defense that litigation against the Clean Power Plan is preventing EPA from moving forward with other clean air activities is not only disingenuous, but also exposes the embarrassing lengths that Pruitt will go to mislead the public. As Oklahoma Attorney General, Scott Pruitt has been the leading attorney in the Clean Power Plan lawsuit he brought against the EPA (hand in hand with some of the nation’s biggest polluters). Pruitt and Trump have also proposed a 31% budget cut to the agency, which will hurt EPA’s ability to protect seniors and children from air pollution (read more here).
Score: THREE SMOKESTACKS
EPA “Overreach” and the Courts
PRUITT: “The steps have been taken by the EPA historically, they've equally been challenged several times with respect to CO2 regulation. And each of those times the Supreme Court and courts [inaudible] have said that the power that has been used has been an overreach.”
Reality Check: The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that EPA clearly has the authority and responsibility to address CO2 and other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, as detailed here. This is one area where Pruitt actually has expertise and should know better: As Oklahoma Attorney General, he lost 6 of the seven resolved cases that he has brought against EPA, as pointed out by Senator (and former state Attorney General) Kamala Harris:
Score: THREE SMOKESTACKS.
Pruitt v. The Public
In a prior post, I explained how the Trump Administration would need to resort to deception in order to navigate the tightrope they are trying to walk. On the one hand, they are trying to deliver a smorgasbord of favors sought by a narrow but powerful group of special interests, ranging from political donors to industry lobby groups. On the other hand, the American public overwhelmingly supports the mission of EPA and don’t want to see rollbacks or Agency cutbacks.
Solid journalism like Chris Wallace’s interview is what it will take to help expose Pruitt’s embarrassing and contradictory tangle of excuses.
The Smokestack Grading Scale
ONE SMOKESTACK: A selective telling of the facts to argue a point, providing accurate but incomplete information
TWO SMOKESTACKS: Dodging questions, hiding the facts or changing the topic to avoid revealing the truth.
THREE SMOKESTACKS: Wrong and misleading.
FOUR SMOKESTACKS: Wrong, deliberate and dangerous.
(Acknowledgement: My thanks to Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler and his Pinocchio ratings for the inspiration from afar).