In this video essay, Bill Moyers takes on President Trump’s choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has a track record of putting the business interests of the energy sector before the environmental and health interests of the public. He has spent his career fighting the rules and regulations of the agency he is now being nominated to lead. His expected confirmation threatens to make America great for polluters again.
Credits: Gail Ablow, Producer; Rebecca Sherwood, Editor
I’m Bill Moyers, here with a horror story — a story of corruption so daring, so devious and so dangerous it could kill you. It could poison your drinking water, contaminate your neighborhood and make your children very, very sick.
Let’s begin with a television commercial that I chanced to see on CNN during Donald Trump’s inaugural weekend. Take a look.
ADVERTISEMENT: The US Senate will vote to confirm Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. He’s used transparent, smart regulations to protect our air and water without stifling development of America’s abundant natural resources.
BILL MOYERS: That’s an ad sponsored by one of the biggest and most powerful trade associations in the country — the National Association of Manufacturers. The NAM ran three ads like it during inaugural week, all of them aimed at bringing public pressure to bear on the US Senate to confirm Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. And just who, you might ask, is Scott Pruitt?
SCOTT PRUITT: It is an honor and a privilege to be before you today to be considered for the position of EPA administrator.
MOYERS: Pruitt is Oklahoma’s attorney general. His salary of more than $260,000 is paid by taxpayers, but Pruitt really works for the energy industry. He’s a political profiteer whose career in public office is built on taking money from corporations and doing their bidding.
SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D-RI): It appears that a great deal of your fundraising comes from these organizations who are in the energy sector and devoted to fighting climate change.
MOYERS: At Pruitt’s recent confirmation hearings before Congress, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island tried to unravel the web of corporate influence around Scott Pruitt.
WHITEHOUSE: Devon Energy, Koch Industries, ExxonMobil have all maxed out to that account, at various times.
PRUITT: I’m not aware if they have maxed out or not, Senator, but I’m sure that they have given to that committee.
MOYERS: Now, take a look at this letter. In 2011 the Environmental Protection Agency was trying to limit methane gas leaking from drilling operations like that of Devon Energy, one of those oil and gas companies that donate to him. Pruitt wrote the EPA on behalf of the company. Turns out the letter was drafted, almost to the word, by lawyers for Devon Energy.
PRUITT: That is the letter that is on my letterhead that was sent to the EPA, yes. With respect to the issue —
SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D-OR): Do you acknowledge that 97 percent of the words in that letter came directly from Devon Energy?
PRUITT: I have not looked at the percentages, sir.
MERKLEY: You used your office as a direct extension of an oil company, rather than a direct extension of the interests of the public health of the people of Oklahoma.
MOYERS: Something else: As attorney general Scott Pruitt has sued the Environmental Protection Agency 14 times. The New York Times found that 13 of those lawsuits included co-parties that had given money to Pruitt’s campaign or to an affiliated PAC. Most of the suits failed. But that didn’t deter Pruitt or his donors. According to the publication Energy and Environment News, the more he sued, the more the energy dollars rolled in.
So why does Donald Trump want a lackey for the big energy companies to run the agency charged with protecting the public from pollution? And why did the National Association of Manufacturers run ads like this for a man so obviously not a defender of the public interest?
Because Trump and the industry can count Pruitt on their side, as his record shows, in preventing the EPA from holding big business accountable for the environment and public safety. After all, when he became attorney general of Oklahoma, he shut down the state’s environmental enforcement unit.
SEN. ED MARKEY (D-MA): Honestly, people are going to think that it’s not just the fox guarding the hen house, it’s the fox destroying the hen house because you haven’t distanced yourself from the actual litigation that you have initiated on most of the key issues that you are now going to have responsibility for protecting in terms of the public health of the entire country.
PRUITT: And Senator, I can say to you unequivocally, I will recuse as directed by EPA ethics counsel.
MOYERS: Scott Pruitt fits right into Trump’s world. In his first week in office Donald Trump has aimed a sledgehammer at the EPA. Within hours of his swearing in, he ordered a freeze on all new environmental rules pending review, suspended all federal environmental grants and contracts, thus stalling billions of dollars that were heading to key operations like air pollution monitoring, water quality testing and environmental research.
Then he ordered all outward communication from the EPA to stop — no social media, no conferences, no meetings between the agency and the public. So if you want to know if there’s work being done to clean up a superfund site, too bad. If you want to know the role of fracking in Oklahoma’s earthquakes, sorry. Whether the emissions of an industry in your hometown comply with federal safety laws? You’ll have to guess.
And there’s more. He’s opposed climate science.
PRUITT: As I indicated in my opening statement, the climate is changing and human activity contributes to that in some manner.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): In some manner? Ninety-seven percent of the scientists who wrote articles in peer-reviewed journals believe that human activity is the fundamental reason we are seeing climate change; you disagree with that?
PRUITT: I believe the ability to measure with precision the degree of human activities’ impact on the climate, is subject to more debate on whether the climate is changing or whether human activity contributes to it.
MOYERS: We should remember that Richard Nixon, a Republican president, signed the legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency back in l970. It was part of the movement to restore a country that had been despoiled by industrial abuse.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: The environmental agenda before the Congress includes laws to deal with water pollution, pesticide hazards, ocean dumping, excessive noise, careless land development and many other environmental problems. These problems will not stand still for politics or for partisanship.
MOYERS: Trump’s wrecking crew says environmental regulations impede the progress and profits of companies. But if you think those companies and their so-called “free market” will, without safety provisions, make America great again. Well here’s is what turning back the clock could look like:
These are the EPA’s own photographs taken for the record as the agency began its work. Rivers were polluted. Lead gasoline threatened the developing brains of children. Trash choked harbors, and illegal dumping leached into groundwater, agricultural run off suffocated marine waterways. Unfettered industries were running our country to ruin. There, before your eyes, is our past.
It’s no wonder the founders of our government feared corruption in high office. They knew it could lead to bribery, nepotism and the abuse of power by a government aligned with the great monied interests — such as the East India Tea Company. They knew it could enable of public officials to neglect their duty to the public and serve instead the design of wealth.
At the end of the first week of Donald Trump’s first hundred days, those founders must be turning in their graves.