Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt has logged thousands of miles this summer touting his plans to rewrite the Obama administration’s environmental regulations — and fueling speculation that he’s laying the groundwork for a future political campaign.
The former Oklahoma attorney general — who made a name for himself by launching more than a dozen lawsuits against the Obama administration — has visited 10 states in a few short weeks, hitting local media outlets along the way. His strategy, Beltway operatives say, more resembles a candidate seeking political support than an EPA administrator pressing for regulatory changes.
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One conservative talk radio host in Iowa even joked about Pruitt’s August trip to the state. “If you’re writing a book, you come to Iowa, or you must be running for the presidency,” WHO-AM’s Simon Conway told Pruitt.
The trips, which have taken Pruitt to 25 mostly Republican-led states, are ostensibly to highlight his efforts to loosen Obama-era water regulations. But he’s also spending time with GOP leaders and influential industries and packing in as many media hits as possible, laying out well-rehearsed talking points to bash former President Barack Obama’s EPA.
Pruitt has declined to comment on long-running speculation among both Democrats and Republicans that he intends to run for the Senate seat held by Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe, an 82-year-old lawmaker whose fifth term ends in 2020. But the EPA chief’s current travels could help him build the support he needs for such a race, said Drew Edmondson, a Democrat who served as Oklahoma attorney general prior to Pruitt’s election in 2010.
“A Senate race would fundraise in a lot of places besides Oklahoma,” said Edmondson, who is running for governor in 2018. “He’s doing what he needs to do to keep the oil companies and gas companies liking him, so he has a source of funding should he decide to run.”
Pruitt, 49, has done an effective job of publicly elevating his “thankless” Cabinet post, “which would lend itself to assume he has higher political aspirations,” said one GOP strategist.
“Whatever he may claim to be, he is a politician with campaign experience,” the source said, noting that Pruitt could jump to governor or senator since he’s relatively young and EPA probably won’t be “his career culmination goal.”
Edmondson said political observers in Oklahoma had expected Pruitt to run in 2018 for the House seat that could be vacated by Republican Rep. Jim Bridenstine, “as a holding place until a Senate seat came open.” But insiders say he opted against that possibility before becoming EPA chief.
EPA declined to comment on Pruitt’s future but defended his trips, adding that he’s received more than two dozen invitations from elected officials and has plans to visit Montana, Kentucky and other states.
“Unlike the previous administration, which imposed its regulatory regime from Washington, Administrator Pruitt is taking the conversations directly to the states,” said EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox. He noted that Pruitt’s stop in Iowa included a discussion about water regulations, while in Indiana he highlighted a Superfund site, and in Minnesota he had been invited by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.
Pruitt served in the Oklahoma Senate for eight years before becoming the state’s attorney general, where he helped build a political network through the Republican Attorneys General Association. During his time chairing the group, it raised at least $2.2 million from energy companies, according to a POLITICO analysis, including from Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Murray Energy, Cloud Peak Energy, Xcel Energy, DTE Energy, Southern Co., SolarCity and trade groups representing the coal, utility and nuclear industries.
If Pruitt does seek elected office, he could be the first EPA chief to make that jump. But former Republican-appointed agency chiefs say that if he is focusing on a future campaign, environmental protection and public health will suffer.
“If you think about this as a steppingstone to some other job … you can’t do it,” said Bill Ruckelshaus, who served as EPA’s first administrator under President Richard Nixon and later headed the agency under Ronald Reagan.
Running the agency well means asking businesses to spend money on things that reduce their profits but that are important, Ruckelshaus said, which is “not a way to make friends.”
“He clearly has not bought into the mission of EPA. It’s fairly simple: Protect public health and reduce pollution that impacts the environment,” he said. “He is more interested in reducing the regulatory impact.”
Previous EPA leaders have frequently made trips to meet state regulators or visit the agency’s regional offices, but Pruitt’s visits so far skipped those or conducted them at arm’s length, with staff sometimes unaware he was in the area.
EPA noted that Pruitt was joined by some regional staff members while visiting Indiana, Missouri, Texas and Colorado. While he didn’t go to regional offices when traveling, he “has met with every acting regional administrator, and has attended senior staff meetings where individuals from every regional office are represented,” the agency official said, adding that Pruitt has also met with top health and environmental groups.
Pruitt’s travel seems to have a different emphasis than that of former administrators, said former George W. Bush EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman, since he’s spending more time on television and away from headquarters.
“You’ve got plenty on your plate. You really don’t have a lot of time to go and do the kinds of stuff he’s doing,” said Whitman, a former New Jersey governor. Her most prominent media appearances as EPA administrator came after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, during a series of anthrax attacks and when the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated, she said.
Pruitt has been in local news more than two dozen times as he traveled to eight states carried by President Donald Trump and only two — Colorado and Minnesota — led by Democrats. In Colorado, he toured the site of the Gold King Mine spill, where EPA employees and contractors accidentally released toxic wastewater into a river in 2015. In Minnesota, he met with Dayton, the Democratic governor, who told reporters he didn’t want to be “micromanaged” by a regional EPA office in Chicago.
None of Pruitt’s predecessors went on to hold elected office after running EPA. Most have gone to academia, environmental think tanks and lobbying firms, company boards or other federal government roles. And most arrived at EPA with either state environmental agency experience or science backgrounds. A few came from state legislatures, and only Whitman and Mike Leavitt, of Utah, had served as governors.
Washington observers widely expect Pruitt to pursue a Senate seat, although there’s no sign that Inhofe, a legend in Oklahoma politics, will depart. Inhofe’s office pointed to a 2016 interview in which the senator said he had no plans to retire in 2020.
The Oklahoma governor’s race in 2018 is already a crowded field. Pruitt could be looking to another federal post, like attorney general, or even a run on a presidential ticket, according to some. All eyes in Oklahoma are on the 2018 elections, where Republicans are vying for multiple statewide seats. Some Oklahoma political experts say Pruitt may be biding his time.
“I can tell you that I have not heard anybody in Oklahoma talk about a Senate run for Scott Pruitt,” said Oklahoma GOP political strategist Pat McFerron. He said he’s in touch with Pruitt’s former chief of staff and campaign manager — who haven’t divulged any impending political plans.
“I think it is just his style,” McFerron said. “Maybe he wants to keep doors open.”
Still, McFerron added that if Inhofe decides not to run for reelection, “there’s no doubt Scott Pruitt’s name would be near the top of that list.”
Pruitt has stacked EPA with people connected to Inhofe, who has praised the EPA chief. Chief of staff Ryan Jackson, deputy chief of staff Byron Brown and policy advisers Mandy Gunasekara and Brittany Bolen all worked under Inhofe, as did Susan Bodine, Trump’s nominee for EPA enforcement chief, who is awaiting Senate confirmation.
Pruitt has also maintained key personnel with links back to Oklahoma, including three staffers from his AG office and a former campaign aide. He hired law school friend and colleague Ken Wagner as a senior adviser and former SpiritBank executive Albert “Kell” Kelly, who had no prior experience in environmental issues, to lead his Superfund task force.
Hiring staff with campaign experience is not uncommon, but Pruitt’s inner circle is dominated by them. Career employees say he is not consulting them on major decisions, relying on his Oklahoma-rooted squad instead.
Still, Andrew Miller, a former Virginia attorney general and energy lobbyist who encouraged Pruitt to be the Republican voice against Obama’s environmental regulations, said he would be “astounded” if Pruitt did run for elected office anytime soon.
“This is just inside-the-Beltway gossip,” Miller said. “I see him continuing at EPA as long as he wants to and certainly for the next four years.”
On top of the dozens of local media appearances during his tour, Pruitt is frequently on cable news networks, especially Fox News, and his aggressive political style stands out among Trump’s other Cabinet secretaries who are working to unravel Obama policies.
He said in his Iowa radio interview that his state tour is meant to send the message that “EPA is not intended to be an adversary” and that he wants to empower the states to regulate themselves. But Ruckelshaus said EPA was created because states needed backup.
“Industries would threaten to leave the state if you pushed them too hard on an environmental regulation,” he said.
Pruitt often uses the media exposure to criticize his own agency for its work under the previous administration.
“The last administration said: ‘We’re going to use regulatory power to say that certain sectors of our economy were wrong. War on coal. War on natural gas. War on fossil fuels.’ Where is that in the statute?” he told Conway. “Where is it that the EPA has authority to declare war in that regard?”
He mentions Obama by name in almost every interview, often blasting the ex-president’s climate policies and saying EPA has overstepped its jurisdiction and the Constitution.
Contrary to most scientists, Pruitt says climate change is not an “existential threat” that will “impact our existence as a nation and as humankind.”
“An existential threat is Iran. An existential threat is North Korea,” he said in the same interview.
In the run-up to Trump’s decision to leave the Paris climate agreement, Pruitt appeared often on TV to lobby for the U.S. to exit the deal. He’s planning an official program to debate mainstream climate science, which he has suggested could be televised. That would launch him even further into the national spotlight.
Pruitt has also come under fire for spending lots of time at home in Oklahoma, which he defended as necessary for EPA business.
Alex Guillén contributed to this report.