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Scott Pruitt wants to switch direction for federal environmental policy. That may be hard to do.

- January 18, 2017

Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, will appear Wednesday before the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee for his nomination hearing.  Pruitt is more deeply skeptical of the agency’s mission than any EPA administrator in a generation. He has pronounced himself a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda,” has sued the agency over some of its major initiatives, and is likely to do whatever he can to reduce the EPA’s activities and budget.

As we wrote last month, Pruitt’s anti-regulatory zeal calls to mind Ronald Reagan’s first EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch. In just two years under Gorsuch’s watch, the agency’s budget was slashed, the number of enforcement actions plummeted, penalties shrank, and proposed regulations were weakened or abandoned. She ultimately resigned in 1983 under a cloud of scandal and a congressional investigation.

The timing would again seem ripe for a major shift in federal environmental policy. The business-friendly, regulation-averse Republican Party controls the presidency, Congress, and — very soon — the Supreme Court. Gridlock has meant that the most important advances in environmental protection over the last decade have occurred through presidential executive orders and initiatives, many of which will be easy to reverse. And as federal and state courts shift in a conservative direction, they are likely to issue rulings reducing the scope and level of federal environmental protection.

But even if confirmed, several hurdles will still stand in the way of Pruitt’s efforts to steer environmental policy in a conservative direction.

First, the nation’s environmental laws are older, more institutionalized, and in some cases considerably stronger

That’s in comparison to how the laws were when Gorsuch took the EPA helm. Industries have developed within the regulatory structures created by these laws and would not universally support efforts to weaken them. The EPA itself — created just a decade before Reagan’s landslide election in 1980 — is older, larger, and more deeply engaged in collaboration with public and private sector partners who now have a stake in the agency’s survival.

Second, states in the last several decades have taken more responsibility for enforcement of federal environmental laws

To the extent that states are carrying out their duties, this devolution could lessen the impact of a reduction in federal effort. At the same time, there is risk of widening the blue state-red state divide: because the EPA provides an important backstop where states fall short, federal cutbacks are likely to create even larger disparities in environmental and public health protection.

Third, Pruitt’s influence may be constrained by resistance from within the EPA itself

New administrations have all kinds of tricks up their sleeves — including reorganizations, reassignments and shifts of authority to political appointees — to overcome opposition from career staff to a change in policy direction. Gorsuch used them all, but resistance from within the agency still slowed policy change. These strategies will be even harder for Pruitt, because political appointees now make up a smaller share of the EPA’s overall staff, reducing opportunity for presidential influence.

Reagan’s early victories at the EPA were dramatic, but short-lived. The nation’s environmental laws remained intact. Progress in improving environmental quality slowed — and in some places took a step backward — but the lasting imprint that conservative leaders had hoped for never materialized.

Even with unified government and partisan polarization, Pruitt’s best hope may be to block the expansion of EPA authority, rather than to scale back the agency’s existing activities in any permanent way. But as the need for emission reductions to address climate change becomes more urgent, even a slowdown in environmental enforcement could have dire consequences.

Patrick J. Egan is an associate professor of politics and public policy at New York University, and specializes in public opinion, political institutions and their relationship in American politics. Find him on Twitter @Patrick_J_Egan.

Megan Mullin is associate professor of environmental politics and political science at Duke University, where she studies how U.S. political institutions and behavior contribute to environmental outcomes. Find her on Twitter @mullinmeg.