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The Briefing: Gutting the EPA – till the courts get in the way

WASHINGTON – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt isn't just a grifter, as he has been called. He's also a gift to the lawyers of America.

Sure, he's great at promising what President Trump promised: a rollback of environmental regulations. But Pruitt is also great at rolling out his rollbacks in ways that land him in court – and keep the tough existing regulations in place pending months or years of litigation.

For proof, let's take a look at some things Pruitt has proposed and how his proposals have turned out so far:

• Fuel standards: Former President Barack Obama's EPA had implemented a series of tight requirements requiring vehicles to become more fuel-efficient. Under those rules, by 2025, each automaker's fleet is supposed to average 50 miles per gallon.

Pruitt announced last month that he was scrapping those standards and drawing up new ones, saying: “Obama’s EPA cut the midterm evaluation process short with politically charged expediency, made assumptions about the standards that didn’t comport with reality and set the standards too high.”

Enter the lawyers. Officials in California – which has the nation's toughest fuel efficiency standards – Tuesday filed a lawsuit to try to stop Pruitt from scrapping the Obama-era rules

• Smog rules: The Obama administration also got tough on smog, setting new nationwide rules in 2015 on the haze that builds in city skies in summertime.

Pruitt announced last June that he planned to delay the implementation of those rules for a year. But then, inevitably, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and 14 of his colleagues nationwide sued.

The first-round result? You guessed it. A federal judge in California ruled in March that Pruitt had to go ahead with those new rules and said that Pruitt had failed in his duty to disclose the metro areas that failed to meet the federal standards for ozone, smog's main component.

• The methane crackdown: The Obama administration in 2016 announced a tough new set of regulations limiting how much methane oil and gas wells could emit into the atmosphere. Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator at the time, said the rules were needed to crack down on emissions of a key greenhouse gas that warms the climate.

Predictably, Pruit said the Trump administration would rewrite the Obama methane rules. And just as predictably, environmentalists sued and won, forcing Pruitt to implement the tougher methane rules. And now Schneiderman and other state AGs, are suing, too, saying the Trump administration isn't enforcing methane standards as he should.

“The EPA has a clear legal duty to control methane pollution from oil and gas operations,” Schneiderman said. “Its continued refusal to do so is not only illegal, but threatens our public health and environment.”

• The Clean Power Plan: In 2016 Obama made the nation's power plants clean up their smokestacks and emit less carbon, the biggest contributor to climate change.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Pruitt rescinded those regulations last October, calling them a burden on coal-burning power plants.

That resulted in a lawsuit, too, as two children backed by an environmental group filed a case in federal court in Pennsylvania, saying Pruitt's decision was based on "junk science."

• The Clean Water Act: Obama in 2015 expanded the reach of the Clean Water Act into streams and marshes, subjecting farmers, especially, with a new burden aimed at preventing discharges that can flow into bigger waterways.

At the risk of sounding like that annoying uncle who tells the same stupid story over and over again every year at the Thanksgiving dinner table, let me tell you that Pruitt in January blocked those regulations.

And – surprise, surprise! – Schneiderman joined environmental groups in suing to try to stop him a few weeks later.

Now of course environmental regulations and lawsuits have always gone hand in hand, but it's worth noting that Pruitt hasn't fared so well in court so far.

Richard Lazarus, a professor of environmental law at Harvard, offered a theory as to why.

“In their rush to get things done, they’re failing to dot their i’s and cross their t’s. And they’re starting to stumble over a lot of trip wires,” Lazerus told the New York Times. “They’re producing a lot of short, poorly crafted rulemakings that are not likely to hold up in court.”

Now while all of this will probably come as a relief of sorts to environmentalists, perhaps it also provides an explanation for why Pruitt thought he needed a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office.

After all, between his many scandals and his many attempts to undo rules meant to protect the environment, he's probably got plenty of lawyers to talk to, and of course it's best to talk to lawyers in private.

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President Trump speaks at the National Teacher of the Year reception...Secretary of State Mike Pompeo embarks on a trip that will take him to Brussels, Belgium; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Jerusalem, Israel; and Amman, Jordan...The Federal Reserve Board's Federal Open Market Committee issues a statement on interest rate policy...Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar delivers keynote remarks on "The Future of U.S. Health Care" at the World Health Congress.

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