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Scott Pruitt Praised And Reviled For 'Effectiveness,' But How Effective Is He?


Scott Pruitt is still the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. That's notable because there have been 11 investigations into his ethics and public spending. President Trump, though, has stood behind Pruitt. The president says the EPA boss is doing a, quote, "great job of getting rid of environmental regulations that he considers to be a burden." But, as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, how much Pruitt has actually changed so far is an open question.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Love him or hate him, the narrative around Scott Pruitt is that he's highly effective. Conservatives and industry groups applaud him for overseeing the delay, stoppage or review of roughly two-dozen environmental regulations. Democrats and environmental organizations paint him as the most destructive EPA administrator in the agency's history, labeling him with Trump-esque nicknames like Polluting Pruitt. In reality, though...

ERIC SCHAEFFER: I keep hearing how effective Mr. Pruitt is. And what you're really getting are announcements about what he's going to do. He's just pushing the start button.

ROTT: Eric Schaeffer is the head of the Environmental Integrity Project, an environmental nonprofit that is no fan of Mr. Pruitt's, but his point is one that you hear from many quarters - that outside of delaying Obama-era policies on things like emission standards at power plants or slowing their enforcement, few of those policies have actually changed. Scott Segal, a lobbyist who represents a range of energy companies, says that's partly due to the nature of the governmental beast.

SCOTT SEGAL: Under the best of circumstances, major change in an administration or in the regulatory state takes time.

ROTT: You have to propose what you want to change. You have to take public comment and then address those comments. Then you have to provide documentation of all this because eventually, almost always, you go to court.

TOM LORENZEN: It is the courts that are ultimately going to say whether these rules survive or don't.

ROTT: Tom Lorenzen knows this better than most. He spent a decade defending EPA rules at the Justice Department. And he says if an administration wants to change existing environmental rules, they have to explain clearly with evidence why the prior agency's decision was wrong.

LORENZEN: And usually the rules that are rushed out are those that have the biggest troubles in the courts.

ROTT: Lisa Heinzerling, a professor at Georgetown Law School and a former official at EPA under President Obama, says that could be an issue for the Trump administration.

LISA HEINZERLING: I think a lot of people have been struck by the real thinness of the proposals coming out of the agency that would repeal the rules that are in place.

ROTT: She points to Pruitt's proposal to change fuel economy standards. She calls it shoddy. The document, she says, was 38 pages long. The Obama administration's justification for the standards was more than a thousand pages. At least a couple of EPA's actions have already been blocked by courts. Still, some supporters of Pruitt say that he's learned from those earlier missteps and is now being more thorough. Ellen Steen, the general counsel for the American Farm Bureau Federation, is waiting for Pruitt to overhaul a major water rule. And she says, yeah, it's taking a long time, but that's a good thing.

ELLEN STEEN: They are realizing that to do things right takes time, and they're going through a thoughtful process. And we want that because we want what comes out at the end of the day to be something that is thoughtful.

ROTT: And something that will stand up in court. Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.