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.

Kate Aronoff April 25, 2018

Scott Pruitt remains the EPA chief—for now. (Getty Images)

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.”

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.

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 Inter­cepts 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 Voxs 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.”

Mar­ket pollution

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.

Oil impe­ri­al­ism

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 régime 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.

Its 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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