Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt was confirmed by the United States Senate on Feb. 17 and sworn in the following day. A former Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt has been actively working to reduce what he describes as “regulatory overreach” at the agency.
He recently visited G&T Associated Electric Cooperative’s Thomas Hill Energy Center in Clifton Hill, Mo., where he spoke with directors, executives, and staff from electric cooperatives. He also answered questions during an exclusive interview with RE Magazine. The following is the text of that interview with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
RE Magazine: What do you hope to accomplish with your “Back to Basics” regulatory agenda?
Admin. Pruitt: Getting the EPA back into core areas of regulation and making sure that it stays within its lane. The EPA has a very important role with respect to air-quality issues across state lines, water-quality issues that go across state lines, Superfund site remediation, obviously water infrastructure, ensuring safe drinking water across the country, and partnering with states in that regard.
Many of those areas have been underserved and underemphasized for a number of years. And so this “Back to Basics” agenda—or this EPA originalism, as I’ve called it—is really making sure that the EPA focuses on the areas that are core, investing resources and time to achieve good outcomes.
RE Magazine: How can stakeholders, including electric cooperatives and their member-owners, expect to see this agenda reflected in energy policy?
Admin. Pruitt: What’s key with energy policy is fuel diversity. When you have utilities, whether it’s rural co-ops or investor-owned utilities, you want to make sure that they have options, that there is flexibility, whether it’s using coal or natural gas or renewables, in the generation of electricity.
The EPA should not be in the business of picking winners and losers, of putting the thumb on the scale on behalf of any of those particular energy sources. It should simply pass regulations that provide fairness and equity and allow utilities to make decisions based upon stability and cost and security to the consumers that they serve.
RE Magazine: How can folks in rural America better make their concerns heard in Washington, D.C.?
Admin. Pruitt: This last election was all about that. The president and his cabinet, placement of me at the EPA, indicates that their voices were heard, when you look across the country, the concern about where we were heading prior to Nov. 8, about how the EPA was using its regulatory power in a way to pick winners and losers and not stay within its lane and focus on core priorities.
Even now as we’re making these decisions and rolling back regulations, that doesn’t mean an absence of regulation. In Washington, D.C., at times, those on the environmental left think just because you’re rolling back regulations that somehow you have this vast array of our economy that has no regulation at all. That’s just craziness. We have states, as you know, that have regulatory bodies that have partnered with the EPA for decades to improve air quality to the tune of 65 percent since 1980. That partnership needs to be restored and focused upon in the years ahead.
RE Magazine: You had a lot of experience with the Clean Power Plan in Oklahoma. What is the role of states within the EPA and other federal agencies in determining their energy and environmental policies under this administration?
Admin. Pruitt: Under this administration, that partnership matters. When you go back and look at the inception of the Clean Air Act, the inception of the Clean Water Act, environmental laws that were passed in the 1970s, Congress was very intentional about making sure that states were a primary or an active partner with the EPA [in implementing] regulations. It was only this past administration that displaced that. As opposed to working in partnership, they worked in opposition. They worked as adversaries.
President Bush I, President Clinton, and President Bush II—three administrations—issued five federal implementation plans under the Clean Air Act. President Obama issued 56. And those federal plans that President Obama pushed out on the states were coercive. They basically were a sign that says, “We know best, get out of the way, states; we’re going to force this upon you.” That’s not what the statutes say. That’s not what the Constitution provides. That’s not what actually produces a good outcome.
So the president and the EPA under our leadership now are focused upon restoring that confidence and that trust to say we can do better than that, and we know that we care, the states care about the water they drink and the air that they breathe, and we’re going to partner together.
RE Magazine: What do you see as the future of domestic coal production and the potential of clean-coal technology?
Admin. Pruitt: More optimism than there’s been in years. I think what you’ve seen over the last several years as far as the lack of investment in coal generation was because of the regulatory onslaught. In Pennsylvania in April, I went underground. I went 1,100 feet down and 3 miles in and was on the line with miners. And I told them the war on coal was over, and they celebrated.
Those across the country that are engaged in technology advancement, in innovation, they see now for the first time that they can start developing those things, investing in even greater cleaner-coal technology so that we can use coal and we can use natural gas, we can use all the various forms of energy to generate electricity.
It’s important to have coal and all these other forms of energy for a utility to be able to make decisions as needed on peak, cost, and stability, on those issues. And so I think there’s more optimism than there’s been in a long, long time about those issues.
RE Magazine: What role do you see stakeholders, including electric co-ops, taking in plotting the direction of an all-fuels, all-technology energy policy for America?
Admin. Pruitt: I’ve spent time in my office in Washington, D.C., with folks around technology and innovation in the coal space, in the natural gas space, and nuclear as well. We have displaced so many forms of our energy over the last few years and really penalized certain forms of our energy.
We need to have energy independence not just because it helps us combat being reliant upon foreign regimes across the globe; we need it to increase our manufacturing base. We need it to increase our jobs output for folks. We need it to provide consumers [with] low-cost electricity.
That’s what we’ve always done as a country. It was only this past administration that said we couldn’t. The Obama administration said, “Choose between jobs and growth, and the environment.” I’m so thankful that President Trump is saying, “That’s a false narrative. We’re going to choose both. We’re going to achieve both, and let’s work together to do that.”