U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, who had been lauded by President Donald Trump for his aggressive efforts to roll back environmental regulations, resigned on Thursday under heavy fire for a series of ethics-related controversies.
Mr. Pruitt was one of Mr. Trump’s most polarizing cabinet members, slashing regulations on the energy and manufacturing industries, including a move to repeal former U.S. president Barack Obama’s signature program to cut carbon emissions from power plants, dubbed the Clean Power Plan.
He was also instrumental last year in lobbying Mr. Trump to withdraw the United States from the global 2015 Paris accord to combat climate change.
However, Mr. Pruitt lost favour with Mr. Trump’s inner circle after a string of controversies including first-class travel at taxpayer expense, lavish spending on security, the installation of a US$43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office and accusations he used his position to receive favours, such as a discounted rental on a high-end condo from an energy lobbyist’s wife.
“The unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family, are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us,” Mr. Pruitt said in his resignation letter.
Mr. Trump announced the resignation on Twitter and said EPA Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former mining-industry lobbyist, will become the regulatory agency’s acting chief on Monday. Mr. Wheeler is widely expected to continue Mr. Pruitt’s efforts to roll back and streamline regulation.
“Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this,” Mr. Trump wrote. Mr. Trump told reporters later that Mr. Pruitt had approached him and offered to resign as opposed to being pushed out.
Mr. Wheeler said in a message to EPA employees that he was “both humbled and honoured” to lead the agency. “I look forward to working hard alongside all of you to continue our collective goal of protecting public health and the environment on behalf of the American people,” he said.
Democrats and environmental-advocacy groups cheered the departure of Mr. Pruitt, a close ally of the fossil-fuel industry who has often questioned mainstream climate-change science.
“Scott Pruitt’s reign of venality is finally over. He made swamp creatures blush with his shameless excesses. All tolerated because Trump liked his zealotry. Shame,” Democratic U.S. Representative Gerry Connolly said.
The Environmental Working Group, a public-health and environment watchdog, called Mr. Pruitt “unquestionably the worst head of the agency in its 48-year history.”
Mr. Pruitt also rankled some Republican lawmakers, including in U.S. Midwest corn-producing states, with his efforts to overhaul a U.S. policy requiring biofuels such as corn-based ethanol in gasoline.
Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, said Mr. Trump made the “right decision.”
Other Republicans, as well as coal- and oil-industry groups, issued statements on Thursday saying Mr. Pruitt had been a good friend to industry.
“Scott Pruitt did great work to reduce the regulatory burdens facing our nation while leading the Environmental Protection Agency,” said Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, from Mr. Pruitt’s home state of Oklahoma.
‘Policy will remain’
Mr. Pruitt’s interim replacement, Mr. Wheeler, was a former lobbyist for Murray Energy, the United States’ largest underground-coal-mining company, and also worked for Mr. Inhofe – a self-described climate skeptic – on efforts to combat-climate legislation.
Matt Dempsey, an energy lobbyist at consultancy FTI, said Mr. Wheeler will be less controversial than Mr. Pruitt, but without altering the agenda.
“He will be less political and more straightforward in his approach to the job, which is better for the Trump administration agenda in the long run. The politics will pass, but the policy will remain,” he said.
That alarmed some critics of the agency’s policies under the Trump administration.
Michael Mikulka, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, which represents some EPA workers in the Midwest, said Mr. Wheeler “has the potential to be just as destructive.”
“We urge him to immediately commit to undoing the massive damage to EPA’s work done under Pruitt’s leadership,” he said.
Mr. Pruitt was facing around a dozen investigations into his tenure, including his frequent use of first-class flights and his spending on security – which the agency has defended as necessary to defend him against unprecedented threats.
Travel records showed the U.S. government spent US$17,000 in taxpayer money on a December trip to Morocco to promote U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas, which is not part of the EPA’s jurisdiction. The Washington Post reported that a long-time Mr. Pruitt friend and lobbyist helped arrange the trip and later registered as a foreign agent representing Morocco.
In one of the investigations, the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded the EPA violated two laws by installing the US$43,000 phone booth for his office without telling lawmakers first. Mr. Pruitt said his staff never told him the cost. Some of the ethics accusations against Mr. Pruitt also involved jobs for his wife. E-mails obtained by the Sierra Club environmental group showed Mr. Pruitt had an aide contact the chief executive of a fast-food chain about his wife becoming a franchise owner. The Post reported Mr. Pruitt had aides also try to get her a job at the Republican Attorneys General Association with a salary topping US$200,000 per year.
Mr. Pruitt also had an employee carry out his personal errands, including researching the purchase of an old mattress from the Trump International Hotel, according to an interview transcript released by congressional Democrats last month.
A source close to Mr. Trump said it was a controversy over the search for a used Trump International Hotel mattress that was the last straw for Mr. Trump with Mr. Pruitt because it involved the Trump Organization.
During congressional testimony in April, Mr. Pruitt was unapologetic for the controversies, often blaming his staff for any agency missteps.
Mr. Pruitt was also known for questioning the human role in global climate change. As Oklahoma’s former attorney-general, he waged a legal fight against environmental rules implemented by the agency he eventually would head.