Scott Pruitt is out as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, but his legacy remains. Pruitt’s scandal-plagued leadership has not only weakened environmental protections, but it changed the roles of conservation groups, which are reprioritizing and spending more time in court to fight for clean air and water.
From the beginning, it was clear that Pruitt was no friend of the environment. He encouraged the president to repeal the Paris accords, proposed lowering vehicle emissions standards for cars and trucks, and doubted the consensus claims that human actions are causing global warming. “We are now in our 126th year, and we have never seen anything like this,” says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club has been at the forefront of the fight against Pruitt by running a campaign to #BootPruitt, frequently suing the EPA, and making its emails public as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.
In response to Pruitt’s efforts, the Sierra Club hired more litigators, and “we’re filing a lawsuit just about every week to 10 days,” says Brune. It’s focusing more on the local level, too, like partnering with cities to transition to clean energy or working with utility companies to add more storage capacity to the grid. The Sierra Club initiated these projects before the Trump administration but focused on them more after the election. “The federal fight was going to be tough, and so we saw an opportunity to make significant progress locally,” Brune adds.
Funding is up, too. In the past two years, the Sierra Club budget has grown by about 30 percent. Individual contributions have skyrocketed, and funding from foundations and wealthy individuals has increased, according to Brune, as the need for conservation efforts became more clear.
Similarly, the membership of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) was “energized by Trump and Pruitt,” according to EDF communications director Keith Gaby. “So we deployed them as much as possible, both at marches in the streets and also through email and other activism,” he adds. Hours are longer now, but people have more energy. The EDF has “moved some of our online activists to real world activists getting out and organizing.” They have also been filing lawsuits more in the past two years because many of the administration’s actions “essentially invited us into court.”
Bob Irvin, president of the water conservation group American Rivers, says that its budget has remained the same, but money and effort is allocated differently. That means more people are focusing on policy on Capitol Hill, more of a social media presence, and, again, more litigation. “We’re not typically a litigious organization, and we view litigation as the last resort when everything else fails,” Irvin says of American Rivers, which has filed three lawsuits in the past year. “But when you’re dealing with an administration like this one, litigation becomes essential, particularly where you have a Congress that is run by the same party as the president and has proven to be unwilling to serve as a check on administration.”
Pruitt’s departure isn’t necessarily going to make things easier, according to these conservation leaders. His deputy, Andrew Wheeler, is a longtime coal lobbyist who is a fan of deregulation. He’s also an establishment Republican who is more likely to fly under the radar than Pruitt with his $43,000 soundproof booth and used mattresses. “Andrew Wheeler is an experienced Washington hand, and he’s not going to be saddled with these ethics issues that Scott Pruitt managed to saddle himself with,” says Irvin. “If he pursues the same policies that Mr. Pruitt pursued, Mr. Wheeler may be more effective because he won’t have that ethics baggage.”
None of these leaders think that the fight will be any easier with Pruitt out of the job. Truth is, without his eye-catching scandals, the bureaucracy of regulating clean air and water won’t make the news as much, says Gaby. “So it feels like a very dangerous moment where people are going to exhale and say, ‘Oh, good. Pruitt’s gone. I can think about something else now,’” he says. “But there’s no indication that the real danger has passed.”