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Does Scott Pruitt’s Resignation Signal a Change in EPA Enforcement Policies?

July 23, 2018

Owners and managers of businesses requiring hazardous waste management might rightly wonder: How will EPA enforcement policies be affected given Scott Pruitt’s July 5th resignation as administrator of the EPA—along with Andrew Wheeler’s elevation as his replacement?

Short answer: Probably not much.

Per the Wall Street Journal, “Wheeler is expected to continue Mr. Pruitt’s push to position the EPA as an agency that avoids stifling business investment or opportunity while seeking to protect the environment and enforce environmental laws…”

What does this really mean?

First of all, consider that the EPA imposed five federal air-quality implementation plans on states during the 20 years of the combined George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations. That’s one regulation every four years.

It imposed 56 during the eight years of the Obama administration. That seven new regulations per year—more than a new one every six months.

Such exponential  growth and frequent change in environmental regulations can wreak havoc on business plans and procedures. And right or wrong, these mandatory plans were not the products of laws in most cases; they were effectively administrative fiats.

So, it’s no real wonder that many business owners and managers have complained that the EPA has been overreaching its mandate since 2008.

Pruitt’s has been a brief but impactful legacy.

As Attorney General for Oklahoma, Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times in response to such regulatory fiats, claiming the EPA was making law instead of enforcing it. As well as seeing them as “antibusiness,” Pruitt was ideologically commitment to states’ rights and statutory law.

Such a practical ideological position is antithetical to what was EPA policy under the Obama administration—and some would say to the mission of the EPA itself. So once appointed EPA administrator, Pruitt quickly became the most controversial in its 48-year history.

During his abbreviated term, Pruitt was vested in a rebalance of power between the federal government and the states when it came to environmental regulation and—by extension—the mandates that surround disposing hazardous waste.

Thus, it’s no surprise that “rolling back Obama-era environmental regulations” is and was shorthand for Pruitt’s policies. However, a more precise definition is probably “rolling back Obama-era extra-legal mandates—be they good or bad.”

So, who is Andrew Wheeler?

Wheeler’s similarities to Pruitt—at least as it has to do with policy and ideology—are manifest. He is a lawyer. He was a lobbyist for the coal industry before becoming chief deputy to Pruitt. And like Pruitt, he has been a vocal and active critic of Obama-era environmental regulations.

Previously, Wheeler was an adviser to Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.) when the latter headed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, working on energy legislation and Clean Air Act issues. He is also a previous civil-service employee at the EPA, serving as a special assistant in the Pollution Prevention and Toxics office.

What’s the upshot for hazardous waste management? 

The EPA will stay its present course so long as the Trump administration lasts. But more interesting will be the long-term effect of Pruitt’s and the President’s legacies—no matter who next occupies the White House.

Republican presidents have historically tended to nominate centrists to the EPA position [such as Christie Whitman (2001-03)] or unabashed conservatives [such as Anne Gorsuch (1981-83)]. Pruitt is the first to arrive with the avowed intention to change radically the EPA culture.

This means that future Republican administrations might be emboldened to nominate persons to head the EPA who more closely align with their business-friendly cannon than they might have been previously.

After all—it’s been done before.

Disposal of hazardous waste doesn’t have to be painful.