WASHINGTON — While Scott Pruitt appears to be badly bruised after it was revealed that he lived in a condo tied to an energy lobbyist, many environmentalist organizations hold little hope over who President Donald Trump may ultimately select to replace him as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“The first step is getting rid of Pruitt for sure,” Maura Cowley, the director of Sierra Club’s Resist Program, told TMN. “At the Sierra Club, you know, we don’t actually have a lot of trust in the Trump administration, but we will fight tooth and nail for a nominee that embodies the values of the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Naomi Ages, the Climate Liability project lead at Greenpeace USA, echoed that distrust, pointing to Trump’s decision to replace former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo, whom she described as “just as bad or worse.”
“I would not be optimistic,” Ages said. “Whoever we can expect to potentially replace Pruitt at the EPA we would expect to be connected to the oil and gas industry, probably in line with Pruitt’s thinking in terms of what’s the responsibility of the EPA.”
Last Thursday, ABC News reported that Pruitt lived in a Capitol Hill condo co-owned by Vicki Hart, a health care lobbyist married to energy lobbyist Steven Hart.
While the revelation was enough to raise eyebrows, the story quickly snowballed into a full-fledged scandal after the Associated Press reported that Pruitt paid $50 a night, but only for the evenings, he stayed there, a price and arrangement far outside of market expectations.
Adding an additional layer of controversy, The New York Times reported Monday that the EPA approved a pipeline project for a Canadian energy company represented by Williams & Jensen, the firm headed by Steven Hart.
The EPA denied that the approval was linked to Pruitt’s living arrangements and have also rejected the notion that there was any wrongdoing surrounding the administrator’s initial deal.
After the initial reports that Pruitt used the condo, the agency quickly compiled an ethics report concluding that the use of the condo was a routine business transaction conducted with a friend.
Despite the assurances from the EPA, Pruitt’s job could be in jeopardy.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who served on Trump’s campaign, expressed skepticism that Pruitt will be able to weather the scandal.
“I don’t know how you survive this one,” Christie said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “If he has to go, it’s because he never should have been there in the first place.”
While Pruitt has never found favor among environmentalists due to his aggressive efforts to roll back EPA regulations, calls for his ouster among them have grown.
The day before reports on the condo emerged, a coalition of environmental groups started a nationwide campaign to “Boot Pruitt.”
The condo issue has brought their demands to a fever pitch, according to Sally Hardin, a research analyst for the Energy and Environment War Room at the Center for American Progress.
“The Center and a number of other environmental organizations see this as a final straw in a number of wrongdoings and ethical violations,” Hardin explained. “It’s really unfortunate to see someone who has taken American public health and just attacked it time and time again over his year as the EPA administrator also have a number of stinky scandals add up and this is just the latest one.”
Hardin noted that while environmentalists are eager to see Pruitt leave, there are no assurances he’ll be gone any time soon.
“A tiny bit of credit where credit is due, and this is not the positive kind of credit, Scott Pruitt has been concerningly effective at rolling back bedrock environmental laws, at rolling back protections for human health and the environment,” Hardin said. “And so I think in that respect he has definitely gotten a lot of support within the Trump administration for kind of setting an agenda that is harmful to Americans and sticking to it.”
“So in that sense, I think that perhaps there isn’t an immediate possibility that Pruitt will be asked to resign,” she added.
According to various media reports, Trump called Pruitt Monday evening to express support for the administrator, claiming the president has the embattled secretary’s back.
Nevertheless, the White House has previously offered assurances over a number of cabinet and administration officials who eventually were shown the door not long after.
For example, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted earlier this month that she had spoken to both the president and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and was assured that there would be no changes on the National Security Council.
Less than 10 days later, Trump announced that McMaster would be replaced by former UN Ambassador John Bolton.
Ages, who emphasized that Greenpeace has been calling for Pruitt’s departure since the beginning of his tenure, said Pruitt’s future is a difficult prediction to make.
“I think it’s very tough to say with anyone in this administration. I think we’ve seen that nobody is safe from one minute, one day to the next in terms of what’s a survivable scandal and what’s a resignable or fireable scandal,” Ages said. “And that’s because this whole administration is so far outside the bounds of what we consider appropriate behavior.”
Jeremy Symons, the vice president of political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, cautioned against prematurely betting on Pruitt’s exit, but pointed out that if the administration opts for a new administrator, it will be taking place in a much different political atmosphere, an important fact considering that the position relies on Senate confirmation.
“There’s growing distaste and growing concern in Congress on both sides of the aisle with what this administration has done on climate change, on clean air and clean water and at the EPA,” Symons said. “We have a political reality that’s much different from when the president was first elected and I think Congress is going to be much more skeptical if he continues to make picks along the lines of Scott Pruitt.”
The White House has not yet publicly weighed in on Pruitt’s use of a condo or his future within the administration.
When asked about the topics aboard Air Force One on Thursday, Deputy White House Press Secretary Lindsay Walters referred questions back to the EPA.