Week 66: Scott Pruitt’s Selective Memory

Week 66: Scott Pruitt’s Selective Memory

Pruitt can’t recall his misdeeds, science is out at the EPA, and Rick Perry wants to declare a national emergency to keep coal plants open.

Pruitt’s True North

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt appeared before two Congressional panels on Thursday—the House Energy and Commerce environment subcommittee in the morning and the House Appropriations subcommittee on Interior in the afternoon.

It was quite a spectacle, as a series of skeptical members of Congress tried to pin down an exceedingly wriggly Pruitt, pleading with him to give straight answers to straightforward questions about allegations of self-dealing, cronyism, corruption, and revenge firings.

Take Representative Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey. He demanded that Pruitt answer “yes or no” to a query about whether he had requested the demotion of five EPA staffers who questioned him.

Pruitt: “I don’t ever recall a conversation about that.”

Pallone: “I’ll take that as a yes.”

Pruitt: “You shouldn’t take that as a yes.”

For those of a certain age, Pruitt’s faulty memory harks back to the testimony of Colonel Oliver North during the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s, in which North answered yes-or-no questions not by denying wrongdoing, but by denying he could remember doing the wrongdoing. North deployed the tactic so often that he began to torture the English language to avoid repetition, using phrases like “I never recall seeing a single document.”

Or consider Colorado Democrat Diana DeGette, who asked Pruitt about his $43,000 soundproof booth in his office, an absurd expense that the Government Accountability Office has ruled illegal. DeGette wanted to know whether Pruitt knew the purchase was illegal and whether anyone would be punished.

“We are investigating this internally,” Pruitt responded, apparently in the false belief that the EPA is a private club that doesn’t have to answer to Congress or the American people.

Yet the most bizarre statement of the hearings came not from Pruitt, but from Republican David B. McKinley of West Virginia, who compared criticism of Pruitt to McCarthyism. For those of you who don’t recall, Joseph McCarthy was a Republican senator from Wisconsin who during the 1950s humiliated and persecuted innocent people—many of whom had no connection to government—for their personal political beliefs. Pruitt is a high-ranking public official who is being criticized for violations of ethical standards and government spending rules. It’s not quite the same.

To quote Republican Trey Gowdy’s advice to the EPA administrator last Friday, “You need to go into another line of work if you don’t want people to be mean to you, like maybe a monk where you don’t come in contact with anyone.”

I agree. A few years in a monastery would be good for Pruitt, and the country.

Secret Science, Secret Signing

On Tuesday, before the Capitol Hill carnival, Pruitt signed his long-rumored proposal to limit the kind of research studies the EPA can use in its policymaking. The so-called secret science rule—which requires the agency to use only those studies whose underlying data are publicly available—would make huge amounts of existing research off-limits to the EPA, usually for no good reason. For example, research conducted before the agency adopted its new guidelines could now be off the table, as could health research with underlying data that cannot be made public for patient privacy reasons.

The proposal is a disaster for all those interested in science-based environmental and public health policies. The good news is that there’s a reasonable likelihood that a court will overturn Pruitt’s diktat. After all, under its scandal-plagued current leader, the EPA has already piled up an impressive record of losses in federal court.

Notably, Pruitt signed his “secret science” rule in secret—behind closed doors before a select audience of his most ardent backers. Pruitt likes his science to be out in the open but his policymaking to remain in the shadows.

Perry’s Coal-Fired Emergency

In the early days of the Korean War, Congress passed a law, the Defense Production Act, authorizing the executive branch to take extreme economic measures, including nationalizing a private industry, if necessary, to make sure the country had the materials it would need to handle a war or a disaster of similar scale. Late last week, Bloomberg reported that Energy Secretary Rick Perry is considering using that authority to prop up the dying U.S. coal industry.

The thing is, our national electricity grid isn’t in a state of emergency. Energy production from coal has been steadily declining for about 50 years, from a high of 2 trillion kilowatt-hours in the early 2000s to around 1.25 trillion kilowatt-hours in 2017. During that time, the grid has been completely stable, with no indication whatsoever that the increasing share of renewables and natural gas in our energy mix presents any kind of supply threat.


But under instruction from President Donald Trump, Perry has concocted a series of cockamamie legal maneuvers to undo this benign shift in the energy market and prop up the coal industry. First he proposed a rule that would have forced grid operators to pay higher prices for coal generation than for other sources of electricity. When the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in January called that plan “unjust and unreasonable,” Perry tried to use a special section of the Federal Power Act, one reserved for power emergencies, to compel financially noncompetitive coal plants to stay open. But apparently he couldn’t get DOE staffers on board for that.

So now Perry is thinking about declaring a national emergency to keep a few coal plants open.

To be fair to Perry, the Defense Production Act isn’t one of those dead-letter laws that presidents don’t ever consider using. It is, however, an extreme measure that presidents use only in “break glass” historical moments. Truman used it to make sure the military had steel for the Korean War. Presidents Clinton and the second Bush invoked the law to deliver gas to California during blackouts. And Bush used it again during the Iraq War to get GPS systems to troops on the ground.

Legal scholars say Perry’s use of the statute, however, would be both unprecedented and unjustifiable. “This would extend the statute far beyond how it’s ever been used before,” says Ari Peskoe, director of Harvard’s Electricity Law Initiative.

In a slightly more colorful piece of analysis, a source told E&E the move would be something like “they do in Venezuela…It’s one thing to put a thumb on the scale. This is like putting an anvil on the scale.”

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch.