EPA's Pruitt leaves uncertainty in his wake

Pruitt's legacy: Trying to undo rules enacted by his predecessors that he claimed went too far.

WASHINGTON — In 17 short months in office, Scott Pruitt proved to be a relentless warrior for deregulation but a disruptive force for the automotive industry.

Pruitt resigned as EPA administrator last week as mounting ethics scandals undercut his effectiveness. With support waning among business-friendly conservatives, the negative publicity emanating from a string of revelations about his conflicts of interest and treatment of subordinates became too much for President Donald Trump to ignore.

Pruitt's tenure is notably marked by his April 1 decision to rewrite existing greenhouse gas emissions standards for 2022-2025 model year light vehicles, derailing a signature element of the Obama administration's environmental policy. The standards, set six years ago in collaboration with the auto industry and California, were designed to nearly double fleetwide fuel economy.

But with no concrete proposal to replace it yet, and new concerns about whether the fragile consensus between federal and California regulators is salvageable, critics say Pruitt's legacy is mostly one of creating chaos.

"He was hell-bent on disrupting a successful program that was driving innovation, saved consumers at the pump and reduced pollution," said Ann Mesnikoff, federal legislative director for the Environmental Law & Policy Center. "But his approach was setting up the auto industry for turmoil."

Leaked documents show the EPA and NHTSA, which administers the fuel-economy side of the national program, are considering a rulemaking that would freeze vehicle fuel-economy standards at 2020 levels through 2026, or about 37 mpg instead of roughly 50 mpg, and rescind the federal waiver for California to set its own stringent standards. The proposed rule is being reviewed by the White House and could be published any time.

Environmental groups and California are lining up to fight the expected proposal in the courts and the court of public opinion, which will prolong the period of uncertainty for automakers and suppliers that have staked billions of dollars on technology to make vehicles cleaner and more efficient.

Critics say Pruitt, a vocal skeptic of science on human influence on climate change, was pushing rulemakings based on ideology and favoritism toward business, while ignoring scientific evidence that the emissions and other rules were effective. The lack of scientific details supporting the decision to rewrite the emissions standards prompted the EPA's scientific advisory board, led by Pruitt appointees, to announce in June that it will review the matter.

Pruitt worked to undo at least a dozen other environmental regulations promulgated by his predecessors, claiming they went beyond the letter of the law and didn't sufficiently account for economic costs to industry.

His aggressiveness appears to have upset the auto industry's careful strategy of seeking flexibility to comply with the Obama standards. Automakers wanted to retain the basic rules to keep California in the fold and have a single national program, rather than separate ones for California and the dozen states that follow its rules.

"The auto industry wanted to relax the standards, not obliterate them," Edmunds analyst Jeremy Acevedo said.

It is unclear whether Pruitt's departure will delay the notice of proposed rulemaking.

Pruitt's successor, acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, is a former lobbyist who spent years in Washington working to ease regulations on the coal, oil and natural gas industries and shares the administration's policy goals. He could be even more effective than the scandal-plagued Pruitt in carrying out the president's deregulatory agenda because of his understanding of the complex regulatory process.

Clean-air advocates say there is an opportunity now, however, for Wheeler to pause the rewrite of the auto emissions standards to make sure they are legally and technically defensible.

You can reach Eric Kulisch at ekulisch@crain.com

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