(Reuters) - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt gave Reuters a wide-ranging interview on Monday at his office in Washington, discussing issues from climate science to automobile emissions.
The following is a full transcript of the interview:
REUTERS: You have said the EPA will focus on a “Back to Basics” approach under your leadership. What does this mean for how EPA enforces polluters? You have been critical of the idea of regulation by enforcement.
PRUITT: I think what I’m speaking about there is a consent decree approach to enforcement, where you use judicial proceedings to actually engage in regulation. Enforcement should be about existing regulations that you’re actually enforcing against someone who may be violating that, very much in the prosecutorial manner. As attorney general [in Oklahoma], I lived that. There was a grand jury that I led. Being a prosecutor, I understand very much the importance of prioritization, of enforcing the rule of law, of addressing bad actors. That’s something we are going to do in a meaningful way across the broad spectrum of cases, whether it is in the office of air or the superfund area, or otherwise.
REUTERS: Do you want to see states play a bigger role in enforcing polluters, even though some have less of a capacity to do so – financially and personnel wise?
PRUITT: I think the state’s role is really, when you look at this office working with states it should be how do we assist, how do we engage in compliance and assistance with states. The office [at EPA that deals with enforcement] is called OECA, the Office of Enforcement, Compliance and Assistance, so those are the tools we have in the tool box to achieve better outcomes. So what we ought to be doing is working proactively with state DEQs [Departments of Environmental Quality] to get their state implementation plans [for federal regulations] timely submitted, provide assistance and technical support, drive a draft of state implementation plans and then actually work with them on how to achieve through those plans better outcomes and air and water quality. As far as enforcement is concerned we will actually work with states. We actually did that recently with Colorado, there was an oil and gas company that was emitting some 3,000 tons, is that what it was, it was quite a bit, of… it was an ozone case. In any event, we joined with Colorado in that prosecution. So sometimes states will do it, sometimes we will join with them. The importance is, in my view, that with respect to achieving good environmental outcomes, you need to use all of the tools in the toolbox to achieve that – compliance, assistance and enforcement – and use that enforcement in a meaningful impactful way to ensure that actions are addressed in a timely way.
REUTERS: Some of the pending settlements that are out there – Harley-Davidson for example – where do they stand? And would you look at some of these previous settlements that were reached during the last days of the Obama administration and revisit them?
PRUITT: Well, I’m not familiar with… I don’t know the latest on the Harley Davidson case… My review predominantly has been with respect to the consent decrees that were being used to engage in regulation. There is a distinction there. I want to make sure I’m saying that clearly. In one instance with respect to enforcement you have a regulation that has already been adopted and a standard that has to be met and a company that is not meeting the standard that was set by regulation. That is enforcement. This is what OECA should be working with the states to address. The part that has not been handled well over the past several years is the part where you have the EPA sued by third party, not an enforcement mechanism, but sued by an NGO, and that NGO is asking the court to compel this agency to take certain steps, either through change in statute or time lines set by statute and then the agency will acquiesce through a consent decree changing the very statutory framework. That is regulation through litigation and that is inconsistent with the authority in my view of this agency. That has nothing to do with enforcement.
REUTERS: What are some examples that are egregious?
PRUITT: There is a host of consent decrees that I’ve inherited that we are evaluating on a case by case basis to see what authority we have to address those. But again, that is not enforcement that is completely under the banner of regulation by litigation. Let me say to you that it is important because Congress has said that as you engage in rulemaking you follow the administrative procedures act, which is you propose a rule, you take comment, you respond to that comment on the record, you make an informed decision and then you finalize the rule. The reason that is important is that is how you build consensus. That is how you hear from people at the state level. That is how you hear from states. That is how you hear from industry. All these various voices are heard in that process and you make a more robust and informed decision. And the merits of the rule, I think, are received better that way. And when you do it through one case, through litigation, and it is passed on to the rest of the country, voices are subverted in that process and it is not good decision-making.
REUTERS: With the cheat devises used by automakers to skirt EPA vehicle emission standards, did you think that some of those penalties were too harsh?
PRUITT: Look, what VW and Fiat… you’ve got this Fiat case that is on the horizon as well. The emails and the communications that I’m aware of: it was strategic and intentional and should be dealt with very aggressively. They knew very, very well what they did. I wouldn’t call what was done too light at all. I’m fact, I would tell you that as we look forward… what VW did was very, very troublesome and we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
REUTERS: Will you model EPA enforcement after what you did in Oklahoma as attorney general?
PRUITT: It is a completely different role that I had as attorney general. In fact, as I said during my confirmation process, the AG is not the enforcement arm at the state level with respect to permitting. That is DEQ. The environmental unit that we set up in the previous administration was not set up to address enforcement. It was actually set up to address a nuisance claim that was filed against a company on poultry waste that we dealt with in other ways with the state of Arkansas. Long and short of it, the role that I have here is very different from the role. As it turned out we were not the front-line enforcer. It was the DEQ and the state regulatory bodies. Now we did provide assistance to them through general counsel, and they provided support and input to them. But as far as a standalone enforcement arm, that was handled by the individual agencies in the state of Oklahoma. Which is different than here [at EPA]. We have a robust, very important role of enforcement here. We are coordinating with the regions, making sure there is consistency across the regions…I tried to explain it during the confirmation hearing.
Look at Superfund. People don’t usually equate that with enforcement. Under the CERCLA statute [the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980] we have joint and several liability with respect to potential responsible parties, and a large percentage of our portfolio at the Superfund is through responsible parties, private funding. I think the agency has not done the best job historically at holding those private parties accountable for the amount of waste and remediation that needs to take place. We have tremendous authority. I’m going to have a very thoughtful and meaningful enforcement response to Superfund to make sure that we are achieving good outcomes for citizens across the country with respect to that entire portfolio of 1,336 or so sites. Again, that is not often thought about in terms of enforcement. We think about air, we think about permitting, but we don’t often think about remediation under CERCLA and I think we have got a lot of room for improvement and opportunity to get accountability in that area. I’ve got a report on my desk that spent thirty or so days. I’m doing the task force recommendations right now, on how to better achieve accountability from enforcement across the board.
REUTERS: But the administration’s proposed budget for FY2018 proposes severe budget cuts across the board, including to Superfund …
PRUITT: But there aren’t. There aren’t budget cuts across the board. We have a Continuing Resolution until the end of April that funded us around $8 billion or so, and Congress is going through that process with respect to what the funding levels are going to be on Superfund. So the fact that we have a proposed budget… Congress is having that discussion and there haven’t been any budget cuts taking place at this point and we’re working with Congress to make sure that there is adequate funding to address both the enforcement side and the Superfund side.
REUTERS: When you saw the president’s budget proposal which called for a 31 percent cut to the EPA budget, did it worry you?
PRUITT: I think there are certain parts of the agency that there is room for true legitimate cuts, and there are other parts of the agency where that is not the case - as it is in every department. But to take something like Superfund and say that whatever the proposed budget was means that we can’t do what we need to do as far as our reform and accountability is just simply not accurate. Most of the challenges I’ve seen from the Superfund program have been related to attitude management leadership and less about money. But as I told Congress during the budget and nomination process, if I determine that we need more moneys there, we’ll ask Congress, because that’s the priority. Enforcement and Superfund are included in that category. When you’re funding [inaudible] million dollars you’ve got room to cut. But I can tell you this, the core mission of the agency – improving air and water quality, addressing remediation as far as the superfund sites – those types of priorities …
REUTERS: There have been reports about the EPA launching what has been called a red team-blue team review of climate change science. Can you tell us more about this? Will this lead to a re-evaluation of the 2009 endangerment finding that carbon dioxide endangers human health?
PRUITT: I’m thinking about it. Steve Koonin, professor at NYU, did a very exciting piece in the Wall Street Journal called Red Team Blue Team. I scheduled time with Steve in my office the week that article came out. I didn’t know it was coming out… So Steve and I were meeting about some other things, and we didn’t really focus on that, but I took the opportunity to talk to him about it and … we’re considering it. I think the American people deserve and honest, open, transparent discussion. What do we know? What don’t we know? Does it pose an existential threat, what can be done about it? etc… There are lots of questions that have not been asked and answered. Who better to do that than a group of scientists? Red team scientists and blue team scientists getting together and having a robust discussion about that for all the world to see. So, I’m not a scientist, I’m an attorney. That does beg the question because there is a follow-up question to that, which is what can be done about it [climate change] that is statutory and legal? But as I’ve shared with senators in the confirmation process, Congress has never responded to this issue. If you ask people that amended the Clean Air Act in 1990, including [former Michigan Democratic] Congressman Dingle, he is endlessly quoted as saying that if you try to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act of 1990 that it would create “a glorious mess.” So the Clean Air Act was truly set up to address local and regional air pollutants. So, you hear often about the regulation of GHG and CO2, but there has to be a determination of what can be done. What are the tools in the toolbox? If the tools are not in the toolbox to address this issue, I can’t, and this agency can’t, just simply make it up. We can’t re-imagine authority. The past administration tried to do that with its Clean Power Plan.
It was extraordinary what the Supreme Court did [in its 2014 ruling on the Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA case. The court backed the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases from mobile and stationary sources but threw out its “tailoring rule,” which revised the statutory thresholds for requiring federal air permits for greenhouse gases.] It said a lot. It said the authority the previous administration was trying to say that they had in regulating carbon dioxide wasn’t there. So there are two parts to this question: what do we know/what don’t we know? And two, what is the response…the statutory response? The red team blue team is intended to be a response that provides answers to the American people… the American people deserve, in my view, an open transparent honest discussion about this issue…. So we are contemplating being a part of that process.
REUTERS: The consensus has been overwhelming that climate change has been caused by human beings…
PRUITT: That’s not the question. It is not a question about whether the climate is warming. It is not a question about whether human activity contributes to it. It is a question about how much we contribute to it? How do we measure that with precision? And by the way, are we on an unsustainable path? And what harm...is it causing an existential threat? There is another great piece in the New York Times by Brett Stephens, I think it was, that talked about the climate of complete certainty. His whole premise is that there is a basis of consensus we know but the politicians have done what? Created an elasticity approach. They’ve stretched it so far that it’s reached a point where the credibility is being strained. That article, along with the red-team blue-team, I think those book-end this approach where we have a discussion about that. Some of the blue team scientists – they say oh we are not going to participate in that. Why not? Why don’t you want to participate? It’s like the New York Yankees according to them. It’s like the New York Yankees playing a Little League team. If you’re going to win and if you’re so certain about it, come and do your deal. They shouldn’t be scared of the debate and discussion. That’s what science is all about. That’s what scientific debate is about. Let’s get red team scientists in. Let’s get blue team scientists in. Let’s let them question one another. That would be exciting to see.
REUTERS: But what would it look like?
PRUITT: It’s in its formative stages. The idea is a good idea because it’s an idea that advances science. It advances discussion. It advances transparency. It advances for the American people to consume and participate through this debate because there is not consensus on this issue. How do we know that? There has been no policy response. That’s why we haven’t seen Congress act because there has been such a question. It’s not a question about whether warming is happening or whether we are contributing to it. That’s not what we are debating. It’s how much? To what degree? The precision of measurement. Does it pose a meaningful threat? Is it unsustainable? There is a host of questions that will be asked and answered during the process. It’s exciting.
REUTERS: But how would this be brought to the public? Would you put it on television?
PRUITT: “I think so. I think so. I mean, I don’t know yet, but you want this to be open to the world. You want this to be on full display. I think the American people would be very interested in consuming that. I think they deserve it.”
REUTERS: How do you guarantee the objectivity of scientists? Make sure there are no conflicts of interest?
PRUITT: That’s why the red team blue team matters. Steve modeled this after national security and defense [exercises] - they kind of check one another. There is a consumption, an evaluation and interpretation. They will check one another.
REUTERS: Congress hasn’t legislated on the endangerment finding. Will this scientific review lead to a review of the endangerment finding?
PRUITT: You have the 2007 Massachusetts vs. EPA ruling which most people misinterpret. Mass vs. EPA didn’t say to the EPA that you must regulate CO2. What Mass vs. EPA said is that you must make a decision whether you regulate or not. You can’t just simply not make a decision. That was whole thing about Mass vs. EPA. And then what happened in post script. What happened post script was in 2009 with the endangerment finding but that was for mobile sources. That’s another thing that important. The endangerment funding was focused on mobile sources –cars – and section 111 [of the Clean Air Act]– what the [Obama administration] Clean Power Plan dealt with – was stationary sources. And they are separate requirements under section 111 of the Clean Air Act. There are a lot of process/ legal-related issues here that the previous administration didn’t comply with. But the endangerment finding is only on the mobile side. When I say Congress hasn’t responded, you’ve had a court case and an endangerment finding and then you’ve had an agency engage in regulatory response – by the way using tools currently in the Clean Air Act – and failed twice. They tried to respond to the endangerment finding by regulating under section 111 and failed and failed with the UARG decision (with the tailoring rule). So the question is begged – what are the tools in the toolbox? I talked about that in my confirmation hearing. I’ve talked about that with individual senators. It’s something that Congress has to ask and answer. We have no authority except that which Congress gives us. We can’t just simply make it up. The previous administration made it up with WOTUS [the Waters of the United States act]. They re-imagined authority in defining the Waters of the United States to include things that included dry creek beds and puddles. It just went too far and the sixth circuit struck that down or put a stay in place and did the same with CO2. This Supreme Court has been very, very clear that this agency, like any other agency in the federal government, can’t simply re-imagine authority and a large authority beyond the statutory text. The scientific review – the red team blue team discussion – is intended to have an open transparent debate about something that is a policy issue that is extremely important in this country that is not taking place. The endangerment finding in 2009 was based on IPCC [United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] information not on the science of this agency. The red team blue team is intended to provide that type of vehicle, mechanism, to have an open debate, discussion.
REUTERS: So you might take a look at the endangerment finding?
PRUITT: That’s not what this is about. What this is about is exactly what I described.
REUTERS: Let’s move on to the California waiver, which allows California to set its own more stringent emissions standards for vehicles. Is that something the EPA will review or change?
PRUITT: It’s not under review right now.
REUTERS: Will you review it in the future?
PRUITT: The governor of California and I have traded correspondence with respect to California’s role – very important. Congress has recognized it. They were regulating air quality before the Clean Air Act was adopted in 1972, which is why the California waiver exists. We’ve reached out to the California governor as part of our CAFE midterm review in 2018. I’m hopeful that the state of California, the governor there, will respond with reciprocity and we are working through that process.
REUTERS: Are there any meetings taking place now with automakers?
PRUITT: I don’t know what conversations have taken place between automakers and California. The president and I were in Detroit announcing that the midterm review was going to take place when it should have taken place which is April of 2018, which is 16 months early, which occurred January this year. We restored process there and order there. We’re going through the process now and we’ve reached out to California and believe that it is important to have a holistic discussion with California and we’re optimistic that they will respond with reciprocity.
REUTERS: On the Renewable Fuel Standard- How seriously is the EPA taking the proposal by Trump advisor and billionaire investor Carl Icahn to move the point of obligation?
PRUITT: As you know, 18,000 comments were submitted. That was actually the process that began late in the last administration. We are still reviewing those comments. But the RFS is something – look, it’s a statute that Congress has passed. And Congress – I take seriously the importance of enforcing a statute that Congress has passed and there are some challenges to that statute as you know. there are targets that have been put in prescriptively in the statute such as billions of gallons of cellulosic being blended into the fuel supply when I think the last numbers we had as far as produced numbers are around 190 million that’s actually production. That’s a problem and it makes it tough administering the statute. I think whatever waiver authority we use we use it judiciously. Tied to production and actual market demand. Our job is to fulfill the objectives as best as possible of the statute and we’re going to do that. The RVOs [renewable volume obligations] were supposed to be published every year in November. The past administration didn’t do that timely. We are. We are going to have those out in November. We’re on path to do that which is very good for people across the country to know what is expected of them. That’s going to be done timely. We just released our proposed volume numbers and the preamble and in the language of the RVOs we talked about production demand market realities with respect to those advanced fuels. We are seeking to do our job there in a very meaningful way. There is a lot of discussion on Capitol Hill about the statute and perhaps a bipartisan approach to update the statute because it actually expires in 2022 and so there’s a lot of discussion about trying to update the statute. It’s well received here and I encourage Congress to continue that.
REUTERS: What is your strategy with your legal defense of your moves to undo the Obama era rules? The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals last week denied your bid to delay the Obama administration’s regulations on methane.
PRUITT: There are various authorities. That (methane case) was a case about our authority to stay certain rules. That’s distinct from withdrawing rules. On WOTUS [the Waters of the United States rule] we’ve actually proposed a withdrawal. I signed that on June 27 on energy dominance week. I think that our section 307 stay that we used there was because we were up against the compliance time and try to use authority that we thought was well established. We are going to respond to that accordingly. But going forward… I think it was a case focused on the facts of that particular case. I don’t think it says anything to us with respect to authority we have to stay under section 705 of the administrative procedures act or section 307 of the Clean Air Act. Those are well established procedures we have. We will use them accordingly as necessary. That’s what we are doing on the Clean Power Plan. We have a proposed rule to withdraw the CPP. What comes next is yet to be determined but what we do know with regards to that particular rule is that SCOTUS has issued a stay against it which means there is a likelihood of success on the merits as far as it being inconsistent with statutory authority and so it’s not wise of this agency to use resources to advance the defense of a rule that maybe deficient. We are going to withdraw that and see what our authority is- the tools in the toolbox on that particular issue.
REUTERS: On Paris and climate change, polls show younger people are more supportive of U.S leadership on climate change. How do you explain your decision to a younger generation?
PRUITT: That’s not what Paris was about. I get what you’re saying but here’s the deal though. It was not about whether the U.S. is going to continue leading on reducing our CO2 footprint because Paris didn’t actually do that. Paris was a bumper sticker. Go back and read the articles about the criticism that was levied on the environmental left. They were very critical and dismissive of the Paris agreement. You know why? Because China didn’t have to do anything until 2030 and India conditioned all of their obligations upon receiving two and a half trillion dollars of aid. Russia, India and China contributed 0 dollars to the Green Climate Fund. People have short memories there. We are already at pre 94 levels and we exited Kyoto in 2001 and from 2000 to 2014 we reduced our CO2 foot print by 18 plus percent. That’s better than others across the globe. When people really want action and meaningful outcomes with regards to this, we are doing it. We are at pre-1994 levels. Paris was not in my view – it shouldn’t be symbolic or optical with respect to whether progress or no progress is being made in CO2 reduction.
REUTERS: What do you think about the argument some major fossil fuel companies like Exxon and Cloud Peak Energy (coal company) made that it is better for the US to remain in the Paris agreement because it gives them a competitive advantage?
I don’t understand that argument. I just simply don’t understand that argument because if they are saying that the technology that is being developed domestically that we are not going to be able to export and other countries will be interested in? Where is the evidence of that? China is still building coal facilities to the tune of almost one a day. They had 800 planned and they have scaled that back. India is going to continue burning coal. What we ought to be doing is exporting technology and innovation to help them do it cleaner. It is not the job of this agency and it shouldn’t be the job of any regulatory body to force or pick winners and losers in the energy mix. We need fuel diversity as far as the generation of electricity because you can only get so much natural gas through the pipelines. So if there is an attack on your infrastructure with regards to the pipes and how natural gas is delivered to generate electricity, what do you do? You have to have a solid amount of hydrocarbons – coal stored on site – that allows you to address peak demand. If GDP growth is going to continue at 3 percent, then you’ve got to have [fuel] diversity- it’s energy security across the board. It’s unwise in business to have one client or two clients. It’s unwise in electricity to have one source or two sources. In Oklahoma – 18 percent of our electricity is wind generated. This is an all of the above approach and EPA should not get in the business of foisting upon the markets decisions to say don’t burn fossil fuels. The past administration was unapologetic. That’s not what regulation should be about. Now Paris? Paris was a bad business deal for this country at the end of the day. It put us at an economic disadvantage. The US has never been about agreeing to targets. In this case, 26 - 28 percent [**the U.S. pledge for emissions reductions under the Paris agreement] in this instance. Every rule that the previous administration adopted…Their entire climate action plan – fell 40 percent short. It was failed from the very beginning. So why did they go to Paris and agree to 26-28 percent targets? Because it provided exposure domestically. Third party groups – NGOs – could sue this agency and say you need to do more under section 115 of the Clean Air Act [a section of the CAA that enables the United States to work cooperatively with other nations to address trans-boundary air pollution]. So there was legal exposure and we were already leading the world with respect to CO2 reduction. To interpret the president – who said by the way engagement, renegotiate or another agreement – but the Paris agreement is bad for this country and doesn’t achieve good environmental outcomes. We have nothing to be apologetic about with regards to what we are already going. It was absolutely a decision of courage and fortitude and truly represented an America First strategy with respect to how we are leading on this issue. Germany is burning more coal.
REUTERS: Didn’t the US position on Paris isolate the United States at G20?
PRUITT: The past administration was all about words. This administration is all about action. Look at the actions this country has taken. We have reduced our greenhouse gas levels to pre 1994 levels primarily through technology and innovation, not through government mandate. We have nothing to be apologetic about with the rest of the world. And if we really want to do something about reducing the CO2 footprint, then hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling need to be exported to China and India and Europe because that has created the greatest reduction in CO2. And nuclear. Why is Germany going away from nuclear? They are abolishing their nuclear portfolio and increasing what? Their CO2 emissions. Why doesn’t anyone talk to chancellor Merkel about that?
REUTERS: Do you ever talk to your kids about climate change? Do they agree with you?
PRUITT: My kids are wonderfully talented individuals and their world view is wonderful. They look at these issues in a smart way and I think they would probably echo the things that I have shared.
Writing by Richard Valdmanis