Does EPA’s Pruitt have political plans?

When U.S. Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt spent four days in early December in Morocco touting imports of U.S. LNG, it had Washington energy mavens scratching their heads. What the heck does EPA have to do with exports of U.S. natural gas?

Energy Secretary, Commerce Secretary, Secretary of State, all would make sense if they traveled to Rabat to pitch U.S. gas. All three agencies have direct interests. EPA does not.

Then another context comes to the fore among those who live in the world of energy politics. Was Pruitt’s trip part of a plan to further his interests if his political mentor, long-time Republican Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, decides not to run for reelection in 2020 when he will be 86? Inhofe has not made his plans for three years from now known, but he told the New York Times he thinks Pruitt, 49, would “make a great senator.”

Pruitt: personal political positioning?

The Times article noted that Pruitt filled up his agency with former Inhofe staffers. Inhofe has long been a global warming skeptic and served two stints as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Pruitt shares has views on climate, as does President Trump.

In August, Politico astutely reported on Pruitt’s aggressive travel schedule (on the public tab) that fits well with someone lining up support for a major state-wide race. Before Trump appointed Pruitt to EPA, he had twice won statewide office as attorney general, raising large amounts of campaign funds from fossil fuel interests, which are important in Oklahoma. Was Pruitt’s Morocco trip a signal of his support for fossil campaign funders?

As attorney general, he helped create the Republican Attorneys General Association, which raised over $2 million during his tenure, mostly from energy companies including Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Murray Energy, Cloud Peak Energy, Xcel Energy, DTE Energy, Southern Co. and SolarCity, according to Politico.

Politico reported that Pruitt has spent considerable time visiting Republican states during his Washington tenure, and many visits back to Oklahoma, all taxpayer funded. Democrat Drew Edmonson, who was the Sooner State’s AG prior to Pruitt and is running for governor in 2018, told Politico, “A Senate race would fundraise in a lot of places besides Oklahoma. He’s doing what he needs to do to keep the oil companies and gas companies liking him, so he has a source of funding should he decide to run.”

Pruitt has focused EPA on beefing up the Superfund program to clean up abandoned waste sites, in the face of an administration that has overall tried to roll back environmental programs, occasionally causing tension between Pruitt and the White House, according to the Washington Post. The White House has proposed cutting the Superfund budget by 30 percent.

Among the top EPA 21 priorities is the Tar Creek Superfund project in Oklahoma’s Ottawa County, a result of a lead and zinc mine that operated from 1900 to the 1960s.

David Konisky, a political scientist at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, told the Post that Pruitt’s singling out the 21 sites for special attention, among some 1,300 Superfund identified Superfund sites, was troubling. “This strikes me as mostly about creating a credit-claiming opportunity for Pruitt, rather than prioritizing additional resources to sites where communities face the most significant health risks,” Konisky, who studies the Superfund program, said.

It could prove worthwhile to watch what Pruitt is doing in the future in the context of his political future. EPA has traditionally not been a launching pad for a political career, but a resting place after elected office or long public service. Pruitt may be turning that tradition on its head.