MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Let's turn now to another of President Trump's controversial appointees, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. It was a bad week for Pruitt, at least in the news, with reports of excessive travel expenses, below-market rent from a lobbyist and a pricey security detail. There was a lot of speculation that the president might fire Pruitt this weekend, but the president tweeted that although he's, quote, "totally under siege, Pruitt is doing a great job," unquote. But many of Pruitt's moves have been challenged in court, so that's caused us to ask - how much has Scott Pruitt actually accomplished? And how much of a mark will he actually leave on the EPA and the environment?
To answer that, we called Lisa Heinzerling. She served as senior associate administrator of the EPA's Office of Policy during the Obama administration. She now teaches at Georgetown Law School. Professor Heinzerling, thanks so much for joining us.
LISA HEINZERLING: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So, first of all, could you just give us the broad overview? How much of an impact has Scott Pruitt already left on the EPA?
HEINZERLING: Well, he's left quite an impact, although he's not succeeding very well in the courts. The first phase of his deregulatory agenda has been accomplished by suspending a whole bunch of rules that were passed in the Obama administration. And there, the courts have been pretty skeptical. The agency hasn't explained itself very well. It has exceeded its statutory authority. And so there's been quite a bit of brushback from the court.
MARTIN: So let's take as an example like what happened this past week, when the EPA filed a legal justification for rolling back President Obama's fuel efficiency standards for vehicles. What was the actual effect of that?
HEINZERLING: The current standards are in place until 2021. They will be in place despite what the agency put out last week. And what's really, I think, telling about what the agency did is that it explained itself very poorly. And so I think this is a mark of what's to come, and it doesn't bode well for the agency's agenda. It filed a quite brief, thin explanation of what it was doing. It was basically taking industry comments and talking points and putting them in a document and saying therefore we don't intend to go forward with the strict standards. That's not going to be enough when it comes to courts.
MARTIN: So what I hear you saying, Professor, is that the process for actually undoing these rules is quite lengthy and requires as much detail and as much effort to roll them back as it did to implement them to begin with. And what I think I hear you saying is that that effort actually isn't being made.
HEINZERLING: That's exactly right. I don't have any evidence so far that the EPA right now, as led by Scott Pruitt, has the temperament or the patience or the care to go through the process that's needed legally to undo existing rules.
MARTIN: So what effect are they having? I mean, it is clear though that environmental activists are very upset about these efforts.
HEINZERLING: Yes, they're right to be concerned. To the extent that the agency is not acting, every month or year we spend in this kind of limbo is a month or year in which we're not engaging in the kind of aggressive environmental protection that we need. In addition, Scott Pruitt is changing the composition of scientific advisory boards. He's changing the nature of the scientific evidence that can be considered by the agency. So in a lot of ways that go beyond the undoing of rules that we just discussed, he is having a real effect.
MARTIN: What I think I hear you saying is that the real effects come much later because people with the kind of expertise that the agency has traditionally valued are either marginalized or leaving.
HEINZERLING: Yes. Those effects, I think, we will see in the coming years as the agency rebuilds after Pruitt, which I have no doubt it will do. But the changes underway now make it a hard road ahead.
MARTIN: You said that you have no doubt that, at the end of the day, the agency will be reconstituted at some point. Like, why is it that you're so sure about that?
HEINZERLING: The first reason has to do with law. We have a set of federal environmental statutes that were passed years ago and that have not been weakened or undone. The second reason has to do with the facts and science, that a lot of the evidence that Scott Pruitt has ignored or shown disdain for is solid evidence. The third thing - the agency is filled with really capable, knowledgeable, dedicated career staff. And even though a lot of people have left, there are a lot of people there who have not left and are still doing their work day-to-day as best they can. They will be in place when the time comes when Scott Pruitt is no longer there.
MARTIN: That's Lisa Heinzerling. She teaches at Georgetown Law School. She served as an associate EPA administrator for policy in the Obama administration. Professor Heinzerling, thanks so much for speaking with us.
HEINZERLING: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.