Web Only / Features » April 25, 2018
Scott Pruitt’s Real Scandal Is Helping Turn the U.S. Into a Full-Fledged Petrostate
The EPA chief isn’t just corrupt—he believes the role of government is to help the fossil fuel industry maximize profits.
Treating the U.S. government as a personal checking account is what the fossil fuel industry and politicians endeared to it have done for well over a century.
President Donald Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spent the lead-up to Earth Day this year as you might expect him to: lying, and offering up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling for oil and gas companies. During a congressional hearing this month, Zinke—who is not a geologist—said of a recent decision regarding public lands that, “I'm a geologist. I can assure you that oil and gas in Bears Ears was not part of my decision matrix. A geologist will tell you there is little, if any, oil and gas.”
Incidentally, while he holds just an undergraduate degree in geology, Zinke has referred to himself as a geologist—a designation that entails obtaining a PhD requiring years of dedicated course and fieldwork—at least 40 times since taking his post. Under the advisement of Zinke, the Department of the Interior also spent $139,000 in public funds on a door made exclusively for his office.
Zinke’s antics have gone largely under the radar, though, as attention has shifted to EPA head Scott Pruitt, who has found himself embroiled in a litany of scandals in recent weeks. A slew of allegations have revealed that Pruitt fired aides for questioning his lavish spending, and hand-picked staffers he liked to receive handsome raises. He has four official email addresses, potentially to foil any pesky FOIA requests. A damning letter from Congressional Democrats details Pruitt’s “wasteful spending, unethical behavior, and inappropriate use of resources and personnel.”
A former Deputy Chief of Staff Operation for the EPA under Pruitt, Kevin Chmielewski, described to lawmakers “an environment” in which Pruitt “sought to marginalize, remove or otherwise retaliate against” any employees who questioned his leadership, treating his position as a kind of personal fiefdom.
And that’s just in his tenure at the EPA. The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner found that in his time as Oklahoma’s Attorney General Pruitt outspent his predecessors' administrative expenses by 93 percent, blowing $23 million in one year on “administrative expenses.”
But is Zinke and Pruitt’s misbehavior unique?
As recent controversies have shown, each man appears to be especially unpleasant, with a penchant for squandering public funds on unnecessary purchases while doing everything in their power to make life easier for coal, oil and gas companies. But they’re not alone.
Treating the U.S. government as a personal checking account is what the fossil fuel industry and politicians endeared to it have done for well over a century, whether by relying on massive subsidies or the state to open new lands for drilling and exploration. It’s more than just corruption.
Making a petrostate
Simply put, the fossil fuel industry would not exist without its active, interventionist advocates in the halls of power—and probably won’t survive without one. The relationship between oil companies and the state currently on display at the EPA and Interior Department shouldn’t be understood as an example of Zinke and Pruitt’s own tendencies toward excess, but as a reflection of how the fossil fuel industry has done business since its inception. With both men now occupying top posts, the United States is just coming more fully into is own as a full-fledged petrostate.
Pruitt comes from Oklahoma, a state where the fossil fuel industry is so deeply embedded in local government so as to be virtually indistinguishable. The oil and gas industry is Gov. Mary Fallin’s top campaign donor. She and other lawmakers there have helped preserve recently-overturned tax breaks to the industry which have landed the state in a deep and persistent budget crisis.
Pruitt wasn’t an outlier in Oklahoma’s GOP so much as par for the course, albeit with a flair for the extravagant. And like Pruitt in Oklahoma, the politics of other resource-rich states feature plenty of revolving doors between the fossil fuel industry and government. As Vox’s David Roberts wrote recently, “Pruitt’s past (and present) ethics scandals do not seem to reflect any particular personal avarice, so much as they reflect someone so accustomed to acting on behalf of industry that it fails to occur to him to try to hide it.”
And it’s not just Oklahoma. West Virginia governor Jim Justice is a coal baron himself, and owes $4.7 million in back taxes to his state, which has been plagued by persistent budget crises. Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin appointed the head of his state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet, Charles G. Snavely, specifically for his ties to coal.
Pruitt brought with him to the EPA a different idea of the role of government than the one we’re accustomed to regulators holding: That it exists to help industry pursue profits, and it’s his duty as a god-fearing American to ensure they see a payload.
He’s certainly trying his best. Since taking office, Pruitt has dramatically shrunk the EPA while filling it with his allies, worked to undercut a slew of basic regulations and waged a full-out assault on the agency’s mission. Concretely, he’s moved to repeal the Clean Power Plan—the centerpiece of the U.S. commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement—rolled back rules requiring companies to document their methane emissions from drilling operations, and added on a political appointee to oversee the EPA grant-making process, who has advised applicants to remove mentions of climate change. (See the full list from Mother Jones’ Amy Thomson and Rebecca Leber.)
In a fawning National Review profile by Kevin Williamson—yes, that Kevin Williamson—Pruitt explained that, “Those folks who have natural gas, coal, other resources—that’s their asset. They own the mineral rights. The United States government does not. Should we be able to use our authority to take that natural resource away?
You look at countries that are top-down, like China or former Communist countries: How do they do with the environment? Not very well,” he continued. “India’s going to use its natural resources. China as well. Our goal should be to partner with them and export our technology and innovation to help them. We can also export hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to help them understand how to get to those resources.”
Pruitt talks plenty about the concept of cooperative federalism, a legal doctrine emphasizing states’ ability to make decisions for themselves. Yet in practice his vision is a kind of fossil fuel developmentalism, utilizing the levers of the state to clear the way for extractive industry. So-called “free-market” groups like FreedomWorks and the Koch Brothers have been among the biggest backers of his political career, but, practically speaking, the fossil fuel industry has never operated in a truly free market.
Another industry-friendly agency head—Energy Secretary Rick Perry—admitted recently that “there is no free market in the energy industry.” He’s right: The energy sector is governed by an arcane and outdated set of rules, nearly all of which favor coal, oil and gas producers. Now that one of those sectors (gas) is outcompeting another (coal), divisions between them are becoming more visible.
At the behest of coal barons like Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray, Perry has sought to tip the scales in favor of an energy source being rapidly competed out of the energy market, essentially mandating that ratepayers foot the bill to keep a handful of beleaguered coal companies in operation. Despite the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission striking down just such a bailout earlier this year, Perry is poised to push for something similar.
Murray has bragged repeatedly since Trump took office about his unfettered access to several parts of the administration. In December 2017, In These Times obtained photos of Perry meeting with Murray to discuss his wish list for White House policy. Also in that meeting was Andrew Wheeler, Pruitt’s just-confirmed second in command at the EPA, who was previously employed as a lobbyist for Murray. At long last, he’ll have a man on the inside.
Yet the connection between the fossil fuel industry and the American government extends far beyond personnel choices. Domestically, states sponsor the surveying and infrastructure on which fossil fuels depend, from bridges to railroads to pipelines. And, historically, it has been colonial governments that have opened up new frontiers for resource extraction. It’s no coincidence, then, that indigenous people have been among the loudest to oppose Zinke’s decisions on Bears Ears and ANWR. Global energy supply chains rely considerably on international agreements and—in some cases—war and regime change, and the United States government has a long history of shaping oil markets to suit its own interests.
As Timothy Mitchell notes in Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, much U.S. diplomatic energy in the post-war era was devoted to ensuring American and British control over oil in the Middle East after resource-rich Latin American countries largely nationalized their oil reserves. Consequently, through much of the first half of the 20th century, the U.S. State Department sought to control oil in the Middle East, only to be rebuffed by the oil industry itself. “For oil companies,” Mitchell writes, “the principle of market exchange—bargaining for something and depending on this interaction with others—was an unfamiliar idea.”
Multinational oil companies themselves have long acted as quasi-state entities. Indeed, that argument was listed as one of former ExxonMobil CEO and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s main qualifications for his administrative post. Exxon and other major oil companies maintain bases of operations in other countries that closely resemble military bases, complete with their own internal bureaucracies and complementary foreign policy.
And America is far from the only country helping them along. G20 nations spend an average of $88 billion each year helping private and state-owned fossil fuel firms finance exploration for new reserves. The United States alone hands around $20 billion in subsidies over to coal, oil and natural gas companies every year, according to an analysis from Oil Change International.
It’s Trudeau, too
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has long been a fervent booster of Canada’s oil industry. For the last several weeks, he and Albertan premier Rachel Notley have been gearing up to go to bat for the oil industry, ostensibly in a showdown between Ottawa and the provincial government of British Columbia. Trudeau flew back from Peru to hold an “emergency summit” on April 15 with Notley and BC premier John Horgan after Horgan moved to block a pipeline that would run through the province.
But BC’s decision to stymie Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline Extension comes after years of mounting pressure from First Nations, and plenty of resistance to it happening beyond the provincial government. The project would carry oil from Alberta to BC, and, on top of being an environmental disaster, would also threaten the rights of several First Nations with territory along the proposed route, many of which haven’t consented to the pipeline’s construction. Several indigenous groups have brought lawsuits against the company.
The battle isn’t just playing out in courtrooms, either. Leaders of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) have in the last month engaged in civil disobedience to stop the pipeline, and a recent demonstration brought nearly 10,000 people to Burnaby Mountain. On April 8, Kinder Morgan announced he was “suspending non-essential spending” on the project. Campaigners haven’t let up pressure, and some 200 people have been arrested in the days since.
The company has threatened to walk away altogether over the opposition. In response, Trudeau convened the April 15 summit, and has offered up billions of dollars in public funding in “aid” to North America’s largest energy infrastructure company, saying the pipeline represents a “a vital strategic interest to Canada” and that his administration is “actively pursuing legislative options that will assert and reinforce the government of Canada’s jurisdiction in this matter.” Canadian officials have also floated the idea of partially nationalizing the project.
Tempting as it is to cast them as polar opposites, Pruitt, Zinke and Trudeau have at least one thing in common: their shared commitment to the fossil fuel industry, and willingness to use the power of the state to keep its executives happy.
Kate Aronoff is a Brooklyn-based journalist covering climate and U.S. politics, and a contributing writer at The Intercept. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff.
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