SALT LAKE CITY — President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a host of implications for Utah, which has railed against the federal agency for regulations on air pollution and water resources.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt will take charge of the very agency he has fought over the Obama administration’s implementation of the Clean Power Plan and new methane regulations targeting the oil and gas industry.
Oklahoma has also been among states rallying against the EPA’s so-called Waters of the United States rule, which is characterized by opponents as one of the most sweeping, burdensome regulations that hurts farmers, ranchers and industry.
Utah joined Oklahoma and two dozen other states suing the federal government over the Clean Power Plan, which proposes for the first time to invoke national standards limiting carbon pollution from power plants.
Utah is also in court over the EPA’s rejection of a regional haze plan governing pollutants that impair airsheds near high-value landscapes such as wilderness areas and national parks.
Like Utah, Oklahoma has had its own state plan rejected by the EPA as part of a convoluted case involving cross-state pollution from Texas and emissions from power plants.
Pruitt’s online biography from his state webpage details how he established Oklahoma’s first federalism unit to “combat unwarranted regulation and overreach by the federal government.”
The page goes on to describe how Pruitt filed the first legal challenge to President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and how he is a leading advocate against the “EPA’s activist agenda.”
Pruitt’s selection is loudly decried by environmental groups, but it’s in line with Trump’s campaign promises to roll back “job-destroying” regulations.
At the same time, the president-elect has vowed to maintain protections for the environment, but critics don’t see how that can happen under an EPA led by Pruitt, who is also described as a climate change skeptic.
In Utah, Pruitt’s selection drew praise from GOP Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, as well as Attorney General Sean Reyes.
“Scott Pruitt is an accomplished leader in business and law, and a principled public servant. He has been a passionate advocate for the rule of law and the proper role of the federal government, and I have admired and supported his efforts to ensure that the EPA follows the process and procedures required by the law,” Reyes said in a prepared statement.
Both Hatch and Lee said Pruitt has a proven track record of fighting federal overreach perpetuated by needless regulations, predicting the EPA will undergo a sea change.
“By standing up to unwarranted and unlawful policies, he has demonstrated rightful concern for Americans whose livelihoods and communities have suffered under intrusive, job-killing regulations,” Hatch said. “Under Scott’s leadership, I have confidence we can implement common-sense policies that protect both our environment and our economy.”
Local clean-air advocacy group HEAL Utah issued a statement detailing its “serious concerns” over the Pruitt pick.
“If the EPA moves away from protecting the health of our families toward preserving the profits of the fossil fuels industry, Utahns will pay the price,” said Matt Pacenza, the group’s executive director.
The Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation weighed in with their concerns, but Pruitt’s selection elicited support from proponents of limited government like the Heartland Institute and industry groups such as the American Energy Alliance.
“One small appointment for Trump, one giant leap for environmental sanity,” said H. Sterling Burnett, a research fellow in environment and energy policy at Heartland.
S.T. Karnick, the institute’s director of research, said Americans — particularly energy consumers — should be encouraged by Pruitt’s selection.
“This nomination strongly suggests that Trump plans to keep his campaign promises to unleash the nation’s energy production and roll back excessive regulations imposed by the Obama administration,” Karnick said. “That’s good news for energy consumers and the millions of Americans whose jobs depend on fossil fuels, from factory workers to truck drivers.”
Major newspapers that include the New York Times opined that Pruitt’s selection is a bad choice that will make “America gasp again,” and return the country to ’70s-era pollution prior to implementation of the Clean Air Act.
But James Rubin, a former U.S. Department of Justice attorney who was an agency representative of the White House Climate Change Task Force, said it’s too early to predict what will happen under a Pruitt-led EPA.
“The nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt will certainly raise alarms for environmental advocates and please foes of federal carbon regulation, given the positions he has taken his state on recent EPA regulations of power plants and oil and gas development,” Rubin said.
“But these positions are rooted in issues of federalism — the limits of federal authority over matters some consider more appropriate for state regulation. It remains to be seen what his policies and perspectives are on the myriad of issues related to human health and the environment that Congress has tasked EPA with handling,” he said.
GOP-led states in the West, including Utah, have chaffed under a suite of regulations imposed by the federal government and proposals to wrest control of state oversight.
Gov. Gary Herbert directed the state to join Wyoming, North Dakota and Colorado in a challenge to the Bureau of Land Management’s proposal to regulate hydraulic fracturing, arguing that the federal rule is duplicative, costly and unnecessary.
For many, it boils down to an issue of trust: Can states can be counted on to exercise appropriate and necessary oversight of the environment? Critics argue they can’t — or won’t.
Groups like HEAL Utah, for example, said Utah’s plan to curb fine particulate pollution, or PM2.5, didn’t go far enough and didn’t put enough regulations on industry.
Utah’s regulators have been challenged by groups such as Western Resource Advocates for approving mining plans they say ignored threats to potential groundwater.
The merits of those accusations depend on who you talk to — the state agencies involved, the courts or the challengers.
In the mining case, Utah Supreme Court justices ruled the state exercised appropriate regulatory oversight. The state is still waiting on federal approval of its fine particulate pollution plan from the EPA.
Matt Anderson, with Utah-based Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy organization advocating for limited government, said it is a flawed position to believe environmental management is best served from a Washington, D.C., platter.
“Unelected bureaucrats who are not accountable to you or I have become judge, jury and executioner of environmental policy,” said Anderson, a policy analyst for the institute’s Coalition for Self-Government in the West.
“I believe that Utahns can be responsible stewards over our public lands and the environment because we live with the consequences of the decisions,” he said.
Critics, however, argue that Utah can’t effectively address its environmental challenges such as air quality without federal rules.
“I don’t think people fully appreciate the impact the EPA has had on our air quality,” Pacenza said. “Utah on its own can’t enforce vehicle standards that result in cleaner air. The EPA has played this very important role in pushing Utah to do better.”