Viewpoint: Trump does away with EPA by appointing Pruitt as EPA administrator

Scott Pruitt

A date which already lives in infamy could assume a new significance for members of the renewables sector with the appointment of Scott Pruitt as Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by President-elect Donald Trump earlier today.

Pruitt -- a Republican who currently serves as the attorney general for Oklahoma -- has been a staunch supporter of fossil fuel industries throughout his career, and was in fact one of several state attorney generals who began preparing to battle the then-unannounced Clean Power Plan as early as 2014.

The controversial plan was unveiled by President Barack Obama and the EPA in August 2015 and seeks to significantly reduce the U.S.' greenhouse gas emissions -- primarily through the development of renewable generating sources and what Trump referred to as the "war on coal" while on the campaign trail.

Pruitt was among 28 other state attorney generals and hundreds of companies who would eventually file suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in opposition of the Clean Power Plan. A decision is still pending, though the expectation is that it will eventually appear before the U.S. Supreme Court.

What does it all mean?

Pruitt's nomination seems to be squarely in line Trump's goal of stymieing an agency that he promised to "get rid of in almost every form," but before continuing I'll step aside momentarily and let Ken Cook, president of the watchdog organization Environmental Working Group, share his thoughts:

During the campaign, Mr. Trump regularly threatened to dismantle the EPA and roll back many of the gains made to reduce Americans' exposures to industrial pollution, and with Pruitt, the President-elect would make good on those threats.

Its a safe assumption that Pruitt could be the most hostile EPA administrator toward clean air and safe drinking water in history.

While Cook is undoubtedly speaking toward the full length of Pruitt's term, more pressing is how he -- and Trump's White House -- will handle the EPA's Clean Power Plan.

Hypothetically speaking, the Supreme Court's litigation could be nullified should Trump issue what would essentially be a stop-work order to all federal agencies working on Obama carryovers -- presumably including the Clean Power Plan -- though in practice, precedent has shown that few such orders are ever executed in full.

A semi-obscure law known as the Congressional Review Act could also spell doom for the Clean Power Plan, but not without a number of caveats that could make its application difficult. The legislation, passed during President Bill Clinton's first term, is an oversight tool that can be invoked to overturn rules issued by federal agencies.

The CRA relies on a simple majority vote, which could be scary given Republicans hold both the House and Senate. Democrats have already alluded to filibustering any major changes to the plan, however, and Congress would have to decide if changing it would take priority over any number of other significant reforms promised by Trump through the campaign.

Buckling in for the long-haul

Exactly what Pruitt's tenure might ultimately mean for the EPA remains to be seen, and though his pro-fossil fuel attitude (and strong legal knowledge) could certainly hinder renewable-friendly policies established by the Obama Administration, a total overhaul of the agency seems unlikely given protections established decades ago by policies including the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

As I speculated following Trump's election, however, the lack of guidance toward renewables from the White House (and presumably now the EPA) could still largely be nullified by the states. Pruitt made it clear during his time as attorney general in Oklahoma that, while he is vehemently opposed to federally-mandated climate change policies, individual states should be free to what is in their best interest.

This is at least somewhat reassuring as the number of other states that have adopted or are considering renewable portfolio standards continues to increase.

Do you have thoughts or comments about the presidential election? The Hydro Group would like to hear them. Send feedback to Michael Harris here.

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