WASHINGTON — Embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who led the charge to scale back Obama-era fuel economy standards for light vehicles, resigned following months of damaging revelations about his conduct in office and allegations of ethical lapses.
President Donald Trump, who had repeatedly affirmed his support for Pruitt but expressed concern about the swirling scandals involving alleged conflicts of interest and abuses of his position, announced the move in a Twitter message Thursday afternoon.
"I have accepted the resignation of Scott Pruitt as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency," Trump wrote. "Within the Agency Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this."
His deputy, Andrew Wheeler, now takes over as acting administrator. "I have no doubt that Andy will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda," Trump said.
Pruitt was aggressive on the deregulatory front. He worked to undo at least a dozen environmental regulations promulgated by his immediate predecessors, claiming they went beyond the letter of the law and didn't sufficiently account for economic costs to industry.
Critics say Pruitt, a vocal skeptic of human influence on climate change, was pushing rulemakings based on ideology and favoritism toward businesses, while ignoring scientific evidence that the emissions and other rules were effective.
"It would be hard to point to someone who has been less friendly to the environment than Scott Pruitt, and who has been less aware of the tremendous impact of rolling back the tremendous progress that was made in a negotiated set of standards with industry," said Jason Levine, executive director at the Center for Auto Safety.
Pruitt sided with automakers on April 1, saying the Obama EPA's goals for nearly doubling fleetwide fuel economy were too aggressive. His decision to reopen a feasibility review of 2022-25 model year standards was partly based on the perceived need for more recent data on sales trends, fuel prices, and the cost and availability of advanced powertrains and other technologies. A proposal to scale back the fuel efficiency standards is currently under review by the White House. It is unclear whether the resignation will upset the administration's timetable for a decision, or whether the agency will take action to rescind California's waiver to set air quality rules stricter than federal ones.
Under a 2011 agreement, the EPA, safety agency NHTSA, California and automakers are currently following the same program, although some technical inconsistencies between EPA and NHTSA remain. California and a dozen states that have adopted its standards have threatened legal action to preserve their rights.
The Senate's April 12 confirmation of Wheeler as EPA deputy administrator, however, lessens the chance of an administration shift on corporate average fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards. Wheeler faced stiff opposition from Senate Democrats who questioned his environmental commitment after working as a lobbyist for the coal industry and a staff member for Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who openly opposes scientific consensus that greenhouse gases from human activity are to blame for global warming. During his confirmation, Wheeler questioned the extent of man's impact on the climate.
Pruitt has been under constant fire for months over allegations of conflicts of interest, wasteful spending and improper use of authority. There are at least a dozen federal investigations into his behavior.
The charges, first turned up in media investigations, include a sweetheart apartment rental from the wife of an energy lobbyist whose firm does business before the EPA; excessive spending on travel and security; ignoring White House instructions not to give raises to favored employees; using his staff to find work for his wife and handle personal business; reassigning or demoting aides who questioned whether certain decisions complied with laws and regulations; cozy relationships with and rewards for industry lobbyists; and asking his security team to use emergency sirens to get through Washington traffic for appointments.
A number of Pruitt aides and communications officers have resigned this year as scrutiny increased over his spending habits and conflicts of interest.
Last month, the EPA announced the resignation of Pruitt's senior legal counsel prior to her scheduled testimony before a House panel investigating allegations of ethics violations by Pruitt. His scheduler, Milan Hupp, who acknowledged to House investigators that Pruitt directed her to carry out personal errands for him, also resigned.