Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt resigned on 5 July following months of scandals and growing frustration from a key base of support for President Donald Trump.
Pruitt's dutiful slashing of regulations that had frustrated businesses and conservative voters offered months of inoculation from reports detailing his use of the position for personal gain. But concerns about Pruitt's use of the office — from security spending to personal use of agency resources — grew along with frustration from farmers and other industries over the agency's direction.
Pruitt did not want to be a distraction, Trump told reporters on the way to a Montana campaign stop. The decision was under discussion for "a couple of days," he said.
"You know, obviously, the controversies with Scott, but within the agency, we were extremely happy," Trump told reporters on his way to a campaign stop in Montana.
Deputy administrator Andrew Wheeler would assume acting administrator duties on 9 July, Trump said.
Pruitt's departure could curtail resentment threatening to spoil support of the Trump administration among key political allies in agriculture. Even as they praised the deregulatory fervor, corn farmers important to Trump's political success grew frustrated with the agency's willingness to cut mandates creating a market for their crop.
"This is kind of hard for me to say, because he has done so much good, from my point of view, as EPA director," the powerful and increasingly frustrated US senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told reporters in early June. "But he screws it all up by being anti-ethanol."
Trump tapped Pruitt in December 2016 to reverse an "anti-energy agenda." The former attorney general of Oklahoma, oil industry ally and EPA skeptic, embraced a charge to halt federal greenhouse gas reductions.
Pruitt spearheaded the administration's efforts to roll back much of the Obama climate policy agenda, from repealing CO² regulations for power plants to pushing for the US to exit the Paris climate accord. He also sought to delay, weaken or rescind methane regulations for the oil and gas sector, federal air quality standards and fuel economy and CO² rules for new cars and trucks.
The agency sometimes struggled to execute those proposals. Courts struck down actions on methane emissions, among other setbacks. The agency's next administrator would likely continue that work.
But Pruitt also became a caricature of Washington largesse, providing opponents a metastasising symbol of the abuse of money and power that Trump railed against on the campaign trail. Congress questioned Pruitt's spending on security and travel less than nine months after confirming him to the office. The scandals quickly devolved from the agency budget to accusations that he was using the office to secure personal access to expensive meals, fast food franchises, travel lotion and even a used mattress.
Pruitt faced more than a dozen federal investigations into spending and use of staff at the time of his resignation.
"I am afraid my good friend Scott Pruitt has done some things that really surprise me," US senator Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) said in a 13 June nationally broadcast interview.
Trump maintained public support as headlines piled up.
"I am not happy about certain things, but he has done a fantastic job running the EPA, which is very overriding," Trump said in mid-June.
Farm-country frustration around the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) helped erode Pruitt's standing amid the scandals. The EPA-administered programme requires refiners, importers and other companies to each year ensure minimum volumes of renewables enter the US fuel supply.
Trump has sought a deal between agricultural and renewable fuel interests that insist the programme continue as written, and refiners adamant that the law be repealed. He pledged support for the law on the campaign trail and again in his first months in office.
But Trump also elevated outspoken critics to powerful formal and informal positions in his administration. Pruitt sued the agency over the RFS as Oklahoma's attorney general in 2012. Billionaire investor Carl Icahn railed against the programme to the highest levels of government as an informal adviser to the president early in the Trump administration. Uncertainty over the administration's approach to the programme has helped to depress prices for programme compliance credits, called renewable identification numbers (RINs), to their lowest levels since 2013.
RINs associated with ethanol blending were heard traded as high as 28¢/RIN following the news, after settling at 22.25¢/RIN.
The EPA under Pruitt used a courtroom loss to waive more than two dozen refiners from obligations under the programme for 2017, waived obligations for the largest east coast refiner as it faced bankruptcy earlier this year and continuously explored ways to reduce compliance costs under the programme. The agency last week proposed a 3.1% increase in blending requirements for 2019. But critics across farm country said they did not trust Pruitt to follow through with the proposal.
"Fewer things are more important for government officials than maintaining public trust," Grassley said. "Administrator Pruitt, through his own actions, lost that trust. I hope acting administrator Wheeler views this as an opportunity to restore this administration's standing with farmers and the biofuels industry."
Acting administrator Wheeler worked at the EPA in the 1990s, served as general counsel to Inhofe and as staff director and chief counsel for the US senate committee on environment and public works and the senate subcommittee for clean air, wetlands and nuclear safety. He was also a lobbyist with coal and biodiesel producer clients.
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