Last year, Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, embarked on a media tour to convince the public that President Barack Obama was bad for the environment. In interviews with “Fox and Friends”; conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt; the Washington Examiner; and conservative radio stations in Texas and North Dakota, Pruitt said the “environmental left” wrongly characterized Obama as an “environmental savior.”
“Superfund sites, we have more today than when President Obama came into office,” he said in one interview from May. “Water infrastructure, you had Flint and you had Gold King. The regulations that they issued on carbon, they failed twice. They struck out twice. So when you look at their record, what exactly did they accomplish for the environment that folks are so excited about?”
Today, however, the person who appears most excited about Obama’s environmental accomplishments is Pruitt, as he keeps mistaking Obama’s victories for his own.
The latest instance occurred during Pruitt’s double-header of congressional hearings last week. In his opening remarks to the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on environment, Pruitt touted his agency’s efforts to clean up Superfund sites, the most contaminated industrial sites in the country. “We have removed over three times the number of polluted sites of contaminated communities across the country as compared to the previous administration for 2017,” he said.
An Associated Press fact-check found that statement to be accurate, but misleading. “The EPA declared seven cleanups complete from its Superfund priority list last year, compared with two sites delisted the year before,” the report read. “But records show that construction work at all seven sites cited by Pruitt’s EPA, such as removing soil or drilling wells to suck out contaminated groundwater, was completed years before Pruitt was confirmed as the agency’s chief in February. Removing sites from the list is a procedural step that occurs after monitoring data show that remaining levels of harmful contaminates meet cleanup targets, which were often set by the EPA decades ago.”
In other words, Pruitt’s EPA didn’t have to do any actual decontamination work to “remove” these contaminated sites. Obama’s EPA had already done that work.
Pruitt has been widely criticized for implementing a policy agenda that benefits polluters at the expense of public health, a criticism repeated by Democrats in last week’s hearings. In claiming he’s decontaminated a record number of Superfund sites, though, Pruitt is trying to portray himself as an effective environmental regulator—all while continuing his push to deregulate the fossil fuel and chemical industries.
Pruitt’s hypocrisy is apparent in other successes he’s claimed, like cleaning up lead in drinking water. In March of last year, he announced that the EPA had awarded a $100 million grant to the city of Flint, Michigan, to address its lead-contaminated drinking water system. “The people of Flint and all Americans deserve a more responsive federal government,” Pruitt said in a statement. His EPA has also cited this grant as part of correcting “the previous administration’s mistakes.”
But the $100 million grant to Flint was initially approved by Congress in December 2016, and signed into law by Obama. Pruitt’s EPA wasn’t responsible for the bulk of the work of that proposal; the agency simply had to “review and approve a formal request from state officials detailing how the city intends to use the grant money,” according to The Detroit News.
Pruitt has also taken undue credit for collecting money from polluting companies that have broken environmental laws. In February, his EPA announced more than $5 billion collected from enforcing anti-pollution laws in the fiscal year 2017 — ostensibly following up on a promise Pruitt made in October “to do enforcement, to go after bad actors and go after polluters.” But Cynthia Giles, who led enforcement at the EPA during Obama administration, told The New York Times that most of that money came from lawsuits initiated and litigated by her team.
“Nearly all of the large cases included in EPA’s annual enforcement report were essentially over before the new administration arrived at EPA,” she said. “Without an unprecedented disavowal of an already negotiated and public agreement, there is nothing Administrator Pruitt’s team could have done to change the outcome. In no sense do these cases reflect the intentions or actions of the new administration.”
Perhaps Pruitt is taking credit for Obama’s accomplishments because when it comes to environmental protection, he doesn’t have much to show for his first year as administrator. The Times found that in Pruitt’s first nine months, the EPA demanded only $1.2 billion worth of fixes from companies that have done environmental damage: “Adjusted for inflation, that was about 12 percent of what was sought under Mr. Obama and 48 percent under Mr. Bush.” The Associated Press reported that in delisting just seven Superfund sites in 2017, Pruitt’s EPA “fell short of the average pace set under the administrations of Obama and George W. Bush, even in their opening years.” And despite Pruitt’s declaration of a “war on lead” in December, E&E News reported in February that EPA career staffers who work on the issue are in the dark about what that “war” entails.
As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt sued Obama’s EPA at least 14 times over rules to protect the environment and public health. He wrote columns denouncing the president’s regulatory moves. But now, as the head of the EPA, he’s apparently so impressed by some of Obama’s accomplishments that he’s trying to take credit for them. In doing so, Pruitt is unwittingly proving just how effective Obama’s EPA really was.