Scott Pruitt's Crimes Against Nature

Trump's EPA chief is gutting the agency, defunding science and serving the fossil-fuel industry

Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, wants you to know that he was responsible for persuading President Trump to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. Pruitt has never said that explicitly, of course – he understands that if he wants to keep his job, he needs to pretend that the decision was Trump's alone. But Pruitt did everything he could to telegraph to the world that he thought Paris was a bad deal for America, and urged Big Coal executives to make their views known to the president as well. Trump, who has dismissed climate change as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, was lobbied equally hard by major business leaders and some of his own advisers, including his daughter Ivanka and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to stay in the agreement. But Pruitt, aligned with White House chief strategist and populist provocateur Steve Bannon, won the fight. And when Trump announced the decision to withdraw from Paris in the White House Rose Garden on June 1st, Pruitt was the only Cabinet official who spoke at the ceremony. "We owe no apologies to other nations for our environmental stewardship," Pruitt said in a strikingly defiant tone.

In the following days, Pruitt was all over the media, taking bows on Fox News and sparring with Jake Tapper and Joe Scarborough. He argued that the agreement would slow the U.S. economy by hindering America's God-given right to mine, export and burn fossil fuels, even suggesting the agreement was part of a plot by European leaders to weaken America. "The reason European leaders . . . want us to stay in is because they know it will continue to shackle our economy," he said on CNBC. At one press conference, he claimed that 50,000 new coal jobs had been created by the Trump administration since the beginning of the year – a fake fact he refused to correct. (There are only about 51,000 miners in the entire coal industry; according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 1,000 new jobs have been created in the coal industry this year as of June.)

Pruitt also dodged questions about whether he and the president actually believe that climate change is a hoax. "All the discussions that we had through the last several weeks have been focused on one singular issue," Pruitt said. "Is Paris good or not for this country?" It didn't matter that solar and wind energy are creating American jobs at a rate 12 times faster than the rest of the economy, or that 61 percent of Americans disagreed with the decision to pull out of Paris, because Pruitt was not talking to America. "He wanted all his pals in the fossil-fuel industry to know, 'Hey, I did this for you. I got this done. I'm the man,' " says Jeremy Symons, associate vice president of climate political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund. "This was Scott Pruitt's victory lap."

While the rest of the Trump administration has been mired in scandal or incompetence (or both), and the media has been distracted by the Republican health care debacle and daily revelations about the Trump family's involvement with the Russians, Pruitt has been quietly tearing down decades of environmental progress. "If there was ever an example of the fox guarding the henhouse, this is it," says Michael Mann, a noted climate scientist at Penn State University. "We have a Koch-brothers-connected industry shill who is now in charge of climate and environmental policy for the entire country."

The mission statement of the EPA is simple: "to protect human health and the environment." It says nothing about promoting economic development or energy security or the glory of fossil fuels. But Pruitt has already carried out an impressive list of corporate favors: He rejected the advice of EPA scientists and approved the use of millions of pounds of a toxic pesticide that causes neurological damage in children; in a gift to Big Coal, he delayed tougher ozone air-pollution rules; he plotted to kill Obama's signature climate accomplishment, the Clean Power Plan, designed to put America on track to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 32 percent by 2030; he rescinded the Clean Water Rule, allowing countless streams and rivers to be exempted from pollution controls; he undermined regulations on the release of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, from power plants and other sources; and he submitted a budget that would wipe out more than a third of the funding for the agency, including cutting money for scientific research in half.

"Scott Pruitt is not secretary of commerce," says a former top Obama administration official. "His job is not to protect the fossil-fuel industry. It's to make difficult decisions, based on science and risk-reward analysis, that protect the environment and the health of the American people. And he's not doing that." Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, who opposed Pruitt's confirmation, says that having a guy like Pruitt in charge of the EPA is evidence of the "dangerous, bizarro world we now live in."

In the past, EPA administrators have understood their role as the tough cop on the beat. "You say yes to things that protect public health and the environment while growing the economy," explains Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator during Obama's second term. "But it's often about saying no – 'No, you can't dump that pollutant into the river. No, you can't run that coal plant without a scrubber.' " The EPA is an enormous agency, with ten regional offices and 15,000 employees around the country; only about 80 of them are political appointees. The rest are civil servants, many of whom joined the agency because they believe deeply in its mission. The administrator, as a member of the president's Cabinet, reflects the political priorities of the administration: Anne Gorsuch, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s (and was the mother of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch), is remembered for her anti-regulatory zeal; Gina McCarthy is best known for her role in shaping climate policy. But the job has never been a launchpad for political ambition. In fact, no administrator in the 47-year history of the agency has ever gone on to higher office.

Pruitt may be different. After only six months running the EPA, he has elevated the power and influence of the job to a new level, inspiring speculation within the Beltway that he sees the position as a steppingstone to bigger things. Given Pruitt's unabashedly pro-fossil-fuel agenda, it helps that he's working for a president who generates such chaos that worrying about ozone levels in the air we breathe seems like a quaint concern. Pruitt also has the support of White House advisers like Bannon, who famously vowed to fight every day for "the deconstruction of the administrative state." But now Pruitt's political ambitions will be measured against the future prospects of the planet – and the health and welfare of the people who live on it. "The appointment of Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator is as serious a threat to our environment as we've ever faced," says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. "Pruitt's entire career represents the exact opposite of the EPA's mission, which is to protect us from the reckless polluters and the disastrous consequences of climate change."

EPA headquarters is only a few blocks from the White House, in a grand building with a curved stone facade that now overlooks, of all things, the Trump International Hotel. After a contentious seven-hour confirmation hearing in early February, Pruitt took his seat in the administrator's wood-paneled office on the third floor and immediately got to work. In interviews with conservative media, he touted a "back to basics" approach at the EPA, which was Pruitt's way of saying he was going to gut Obama's progressive environmental legacy and give polluters a free pass. "He's not just going after climate, he's going after all the rules," McCarthy says. "Air, water, chemical safety. He's not going back to basics, unless the basics mean the 1960s."

To help with his cause, Pruitt brought in a team of experienced EPA-bashers and climate-change obstructionists, many of whom have worked for Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the most notorious and flamboyant climate denier in Congress. (Inhofe once brought a snowball to the Senate floor as evidence that global warming isn't real.) Pruitt's favored pick for deputy administrator, Andrew Wheeler, worked for Inhofe early in his career, then became a lobbyist for coal magnate Bob Murray, among others. Ryan Jackson, Pruitt's chief of staff, was formerly Inhofe's chief of staff. "He brought in the climate-denial all-stars," says Frank O'Donnell, head of Clean Air Watch, a climate and anti-pollution advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

Many of the career staffers looked on in shock and disbelief. "Most people who work at the EPA do it because they believe in the mission of the agency," says one EPA manager, who insists on anonymity – like nearly everyone I talked to at the agency. "The people Pruitt brought in made it clear they had no interest in pursuing that mission." Within the first week, Pruitt alienated many of the rank and file with an uninspiring introductory speech about the importance of civility and how "regulators exist to give certainty to those that they regulate." He did not say a word about public health or the environment. That same week, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he said that those who want to eliminate the EPA are "justified" in their beliefs. "I think people across the country look at the EPA the way they look at the IRS," Pruitt said. As one EPA staffer commented later, "Could he have been more insulting?"

Previous EPA administrators spent their first months meeting with environmental groups, public-health organizations and industry. "We wanted to meet with as many stakeholders as possible," says Matt Fritz, McCarthy's chief of staff. "We thought engaging in dialogue with these folks would help us gain a range of perspectives on the issues and challenges facing the country and the world, frankly." In Pruitt's first months, he met with almost no one from public-health or environmental groups. But for the fossil-fuel industry, he was wide open. One month after taking office, he hosted BP's U.S. chairman at his office. The next day, he met with two top executives from Chevron Corporation to discuss regulatory reform. The day after that, he spent two hours mingling with 45 CEOs from oil-and-gas companies at Trump's D.C. hotel. On March 9th, Lynn Good, chief executive of the utility giant Duke Energy, got 45 minutes with Pruitt to discuss "policy priorities." On March 28th and 29th, Pruitt had a pair of 30-minute meetings with Bob Murray, the coal baron and Trump confidant whom HBO's John Oliver recently called "a geriatric Dr. Evil" in a segment about a 2007 collapse at a Murray Energy-owned mine in Utah that killed nine people.

Some events seemed orchestrated to demoralize the agency's staff. Trump invited coal miners into the Rachel Carson Room to witness the dismantling of Obama's Clean Power Plan. "Inviting the miners to come over to the EPA for the signing was such an invasion," one EPA staffer says, noting the rollback took place in the very room where McCarthy had signed the Clean Power Plan. "They knew exactly what they were doing – it was staged to be totally in-your-face." Posters of Pruitt shaking hands with miners now adorn the halls of the agency.

In May, Trump's budget director, Mick Mulvaney, who openly mocks funding for climate science, released the White House's 2018 budget proposal. It aims to cut EPA funds from $8.2 billion to $5.7 billion – the 31 percent reduction would be the largest of any federal agency. Climate science is a big target: The program for reporting on greenhouse-gas emissions would be zeroed out, and the office responsible for drafting climate regulations would see its funds cut by nearly 70 percent. Even programs Pruitt says he supports, such as Superfund, which cleans up land contaminated by toxic waste, would be whacked by 30 percent. Pruitt, who developed the budget in consultation with Mulvaney, argued that states would pick up the slack, but then failed to point out that the budget also cuts a set of state grants by 45 percent. "This wasn't just penny-squeezing," one EPA staffer tells me. "It was just a giant fuck you to our mission."

As long as the House and Senate remain in Republican control, Pruitt has few checks on his power. And that includes the press, too. Except for his victory lap after Paris, he mostly avoids mainstream media. (Pruitt's office refused numerous requests to interview him for this story.) And despite his often-professed belief in "the rule of law," he has steadfastly resisted and evaded Freedom of Information Act requests for e-mail records and other public documents. He's so good at operating in the shadows, in fact, that he was recently given the Golden Padlock Award by investigative journalists, which recognizes the most secretive publicly funded person or agency in the United States.

Even within the agency, Pruitt remains an almost invisible presence. Of the dozens of agency staffers I talked to, only two had spoken to him directly, and none had received an e-mail from him. "He spends plenty of time traveling around the country and meeting with industry folks, but he's completely uninterested in building any relationship or trust with the people who actually work here," one staffer says. There's also a new level of secrecy and paranoia within the agency. Unlike previous administrators, Pruitt has round-the-clock Secret Service protection, and has prohibited people from bringing phones into sensitive meetings out of fear that what he says may be surreptitiously recorded. "It's been six months," another EPA staffer says, "and people are still crying at their desks."

If you had to guess what Pruitt did for a living just by shaking his hand, you might guess tax accountant or school-board president. He is 49, balding a little on top, and stout. Outside the office, he dresses conservatively in khakis and plaid shirts or fleeces, and is unfailingly polite, remembering your name even if he has met you just once, and offering to get you a cup of coffee if he's getting one for himself. Pruitt and his wife, Marlyn, have two college-age kids, and back home in Oklahoma attend services at First Baptist Church in the town of Broken Arrow, where Pruitt is a deacon. Nick Garland, the head pastor, knows Pruitt well and says he displays "a tremendous amount of Christian character."

Pruitt was born in Danville, Kentucky, a small town about an hour south of Lexington, where his father ran steakhouses. The oldest of three kids in a devout Baptist family, Pruitt grew up listening to Ronnie Milsap, attending church and playing baseball (second base). He earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Kentucky, where he met his future wife. As one of his roommates recalled, he "definitely wasn't a guy that went out and screwed around much." One of his teammates called him "the possum," although it's unclear if the nickname referred to his night-creature-like eyes or his crafty nature.

Pruitt eventually transferred to Georgetown College, a small Baptist school nearby, and then moved to Oklahoma to attend the University of Tulsa's law school. For most of the 20th century, Tulsa was known as the "oil capital of the world." Until the 1930s, Oklahoma was tied with California as the largest oil-producing state in the country (it's now the sixth-largest oil producer in the nation). Fossil-fuel pride runs deep here: The Golden Driller, a 75-foot-tall statue of an oil worker, adorns the fairgrounds, and the big houses on the city's rolling hills are a legacy of the black gold that came gushing out of the ground.

Pruitt's first job out of law school was at a small legal practice he founded in Tulsa – Christian Legal Services – that focused on religious-liberty cases. In 1998, as President Clinton's impeachment melodrama riled up the religious right, Pruitt ran for state Senate as a 30-year-old God-fearing Christian and won easily. In office, he introduced legislation requiring a pregnant woman to notify the father before getting an abortion and was one of only four senators to vote against an early-childhood-development bill targeted at helping low-income, at-risk children.

But on the campaign trail, Pruitt didn't possess much charm. In 2001, he got trounced in a special election for the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2006, he gave up his seat in the state Senate to run for lieutenant governor and lost the Republican nomination. He spent the next few years licking his wounds and building a network among the state's upper crust as co-owner of the Oklahoma City RedHawks, a Triple-A baseball team. "It was always clear that Scott had big political aspirations," former Oklahoma Gov. David Walters tells me. "But after losing twice, it looked like he had run too much and was out of the game."

When I ask what changed, Walters replies, "The money."

In 2010, the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision allowed virtually unlimited giving from corporations to political action committees. Big players like Koch Industries could now rain millions of dollars on candidates who supported their anti-government, anti-climate-change agenda. That same year, Pruitt decided to run for Oklahoma attorney general. As a politician, he was born-again. Instead of speaking about the evils of abortion, he talked about the limits of federal powers and the rule of law, code words for loosening regulations on polluters. And, of course, he trashed Obama whenever he had the chance. "In that race, Pruitt made Obama the big issue," says Drew Edmondson, then the incumbent Oklahoma attorney general. "It was an explicitly anti-Obama campaign."

Pruitt amassed a $950,000 war chest, almost twice as much as his Democratic opponent, who, among other things, refused to take money from Oklahoma's powerful chicken industry. Pruitt took $62,000 from people connected with it, and shortly after he was elected – by a large margin – he dropped a lawsuit against several major chicken producers for dumping poultry waste into the Illinois River.

As attorney general, Pruitt spent most of his time suing the federal government. In the 14 lawsuits he filed against the EPA, Pruitt attempted to stop rules limiting the amount of smog that drifts across state borders; block a new standard on pollution from mercury, claiming "the record does not support the EPA's findings that mercury . . . pose[s] public health hazards"; and stall a plan for reducing air pollution in national parks. Most of these lawsuits were tossed out, but some were effective in clogging up the courts, buying industry a few more years to pollute. Of course, Pruitt couched it all in high-minded rhetoric about the American way: "Our battles against the EPA," Pruitt wrote in a 2011 editorial for The Oklahoman, "are about our right as a state to control our own destiny and resist attempts by the administration to ramrod a wish list of regulations through agency heads instead of garnering approval from Congress."

For Pruitt, bashing the Feds turned out to be good business. His staff expanded, the budget grew and he moved into swankier office space. Lori Sheltman, who worked as a legal secretary under Pruitt for two years, told an Oklahoma newspaper that employees were shocked when Pruitt began to pray before staff meetings. "When you work for a state agency, it's something that you are not used to," Sheltman said. Former Gov. Walters recalls seeing Pruitt at a Rotary Club meeting in Oklahoma City the year after he was elected. "His talk was all about Obama and suing the federal government. He did not mention a single thing about what he was doing for Oklahoma, or how he was protecting the people of the state. I was horrified. Then the guy sitting next to me turns to me and says, 'Isn't this guy wonderful?' "

During Pruitt's watch, enforcement of environmental laws in Oklahoma virtually ended. The budget for the Environmental Protection Unit, which investigated environmental crimes like illegal dumping and contamination from refineries, was slashed to zero and the group was disbanded. In 2014, an investigation by The New York Times revealed that a letter Pruitt sent to the EPA in 2011 – complaining about federal estimates of air pollution caused by drilling in Oklahoma – was actually written by lawyers for Devon Energy, one of the state's biggest oil-and-gas companies. ("Outstanding!" the company's director of government relations wrote in a note to Pruitt's office.) The Times found that Pruitt had sent similar letters, drafted by energy-industry lobbyists, to the Department of the Interior, the Office of Management and Budget, and President Obama. "I would have found that embarrassing," says Edmondson. "Scott did not." (Pruitt, with classic piety, told the Tulsa World that the Times story "did not accurately reflect what motivates my service and how we seek to make decisions on advancing these cases.")

At that point, Pruitt was head of the Republican Attorneys General Association, a political group for state attorneys general to hobnob with corporate lobbyists and CEOs at posh resorts each year. While Pruitt was a member of RAGA's executive committee, the group hauled in big donations from the fossil-fuel mafia: $530,000 from Koch Industries, the empire owned and operated by the Koch brothers; $350,000 from Murray Energy; $160,000 from oil giant ExxonMobil, a longtime funder of climate deniers; and $125,000 from Devon Energy. Since 2015, the fossil-fuel industry and its pals have given more than $2.25 million to RAGA.

An even murkier source of money was the Rule of Law Defense Fund, which identifies itself as a "public policy organization for issues relevant to the nation's Republican attorneys general." The group was founded while Pruitt was head of RAGA, and he remained a board member until he took over as head of the EPA. As a nonprofit, the fund doesn't have to disclose the sources of the money it receives. "It's just a dark hole," Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse tells me. But tax documents from Freedom Partners, the Koch brothers' Super PAC, show that the organization has donated at least $175,000 to the Rule of Law Defense Fund since 2014. During confirmation hearings, Whitehouse pushed Pruitt to reveal the names of donors to the Rule of Law Defense Fund and other sources of dark money, pointing out that if, say, Devon Energy had given the fund $1 million, it is not hard to imagine that Pruitt would be beholden to them. Pruitt refused to identify any donors, saying he had been cleared by the EPA ethics office, and promised he "would take the appropriate steps to recuse if [the EPA ethics office] told me to do so."

To Whitehouse, that's unacceptable. "He knows who gave him money, and they know who gave him money, but it is the public who doesn't know," Whitehouse tells me. "He is a puppet of the fossil-fuel industry, and we have a right to know who is pulling his strings."

No one has suggested that Pruitt personally benefited from all this dark money; however, he certainly did well as a public official in Oklahoma. A year after he became attorney general, Pruitt and his family moved to a $1.2 million home in a neighborhood of estates built by oil barons in the 1920s. Pruitt's four-bedroom, five-fireplace brick house in Tulsa, which he still owns and, according to colleagues, returns to most weekends, looks like a British manor house that has been transported out of the Gilded Age and dropped onto the prairie.

On August 3rd, 2015, the very day Obama stood in the East Room of the White House with McCarthy to announce the Clean Power Plan, Pruitt was at the Greenbrier, a stately- resort in the hills of West Virginia, participating in a four-day RAGA meeting with coal and energy-industry lobbyists. (The topic of Pruitt's discussion panel was "The Dangerous Consequences of the Clean Power Plan & Other EPA Rules.") On the day the Obama plan was unveiled, Pruitt and the other attorneys general held a press conference at the Greenbrier to announce a lawsuit to stop it. The lawsuit is still tied up in court, but it's clear that, as EPA administrator, Pruitt will try to kill the Clean Power Plan.

The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to regulate air pollutants "anticipated to endanger public health or welfare." In 2009, in Massachusetts v. EPA, the Supreme Court found that greenhouse gases are pollutants, and later that year, the EPA determined the emission of greenhouse gases poses a threat. The agency's decision became known as the "endangerment finding," and the Clean Power Plan was the Obama administration's vision for how to comply with it, putting overall limits on power plants and vehicle pollution.

But because the Clean Power Plan standards were set by the agency, not by a law passed by Congress, they are always subject to revision. "They can just say, 'We don't agree with Obama's interpretation of the Clean Air Act,' " explains Jody Freeman, who worked as a legal adviser on climate and energy issues in Obama's White House and is the founding director of the Harvard Law School Environmental Law and Policy Program. "Or they can take another tack, which is to make a much less stringent rule. What approach they take depends on how confident they feel – and how much time they want to spend in court."

Pruitt, however, has bigger deregulation ambitions than simply killing the Clean Power Plan. "The goal is to destroy the legal foundation for greenhouse-gas regulations of any kind," says David Doniger, director of the climate and clean-air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. For that, Pruitt must successfully argue that the endangerment finding is fundamentally incorrect. "Pruitt will either have to prove that accumulation of all greenhouse gases isn't damaging, or that contributions from vehicles and power plants aren't contributing to the problem," says Doniger. "And he will need to document it all with a double Mount Everest of data to offset the Mount Everest of data that shows that accumulated pollution does indeed endanger public health and welfare. No one thinks it's possible, especially with his resources and staff. He will be laughed out of court."

For decades, the largest players in the fossil-fuel industry – Peabody Energy, the National Mining Association, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries – argued that changes in the climate were either from natural cycles or they weren't happening at all. They spent millions on campaigns to show that CO2, the leading cause of global warming, was actually good for you because it makes plants grow. But Pruitt's disregard for the risks of climate change runs deeper. Like many (but not all) evangelical Christians, he sees fossil fuels not as the remains of dead plants and animals, but as God's gift to mankind. "God has blessed us with natural resources," he told Politico recently. "Let's use them to feed the world. Let's use them to power the world. Let's use them to protect the world." As for climate change, that's not something humans are responsible for. "God's still up there," Pruitt's mentor, Sen. Inhofe, has said. "The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous."

Not surprisingly, Pruitt has begun removing climate data and scientific information from the EPA's website. In May, the contracts of most members of the Board of Scientific Counselors, which advises the agency on internal research, were canceled. "The Board of Scientific Counselors had 68 members two months ago – it will have 11 come September 1st," says Deborah Swackhamer, a retired professor at the University of Minnesota who is chairperson of the board. "They've essentially suspended scientific activities by ending these terms. We have no meetings scheduled, no bodies to do the work." In May, when Swackhamer was summoned to testify before Congress on the importance of scientific integrity in the agency, she received a series of e-mails from Pruitt's chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, asking her to stick to "talking points" on the dismissal of several board members. She refused. "I felt bullied and intimidated," she tells me.

Pruitt's debasement of science is not limited to climate change. Earlier this year, the agency approved the use of millions of pounds of chlorpyrifos, an agricultural pesticide shown to be especially dangerous to infants and young children. EPA scientists had recommended that it be disallowed, but Pruitt thought differently. It's probably not a coincidence that Andrew Liveris, the CEO of Dow Chemical, a leading producer of chlorpyrifos, heads a White House manufacturing council (his company also wrote a $1 million check to help underwrite Trump's inaugural festivities). In early March, Pruitt was scheduled to meet with Liveris on the sidelines of an energy conference in Houston. The sit-down was canceled, but according to Pruitt's office the pair did have a "brief introduction in passing." A few weeks later, the EPA chief announced that chlorpyrifos would not be banned. Pruitt said the decision was made out of a "need to provide regulatory certainty." But, as Philip Landrigan, dean of global health at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, points out, Pruitt campaigned aggressively as a pro-life candidate when he was running for office in Oklahoma. "Now he has approved a pesticide that has a clear impact on the development of children's brains," Landrigan says. "That makes him the worst kind of hypocrite."

Still, Pruitt hesitates to erode confidence in climate science with full-frontal attacks. "The new denialism is to admit that the climate is changing, but that the science is still unsettled, and the role that human activity plays is still unclear, and until we figure that out, there's no real reason to take action," says Mann, the Penn State climate scientist. As evidence of this approach, Mann points to an idea Pruitt recently floated of bringing together a red team and a blue team to debate various issues in climate science in public – perhaps even on TV. It's an idea that might work in a debate over, say, health care policy. But climate science is based on physical facts, not political or economic theory. As Mann says, "If our civilization doesn't survive, it will be because of this kind of malicious stupidity."

In the end, Pruitt's goal might simply be to derail political momentum toward rapidly cutting CO2 emissions. After all, the fossil-fuel industry has invested billions in new pipelines, coal mines, drilling technology and port infrastructure. A 2015 study by Carbon Tracker, a U.K. financial organization, estimated that if the goals of the Paris Agreement are achieved, the global fossil-fuel industry risks writing off $2 trillion in assets. For Big Coal and Big Oil, a few million dollars to prop up a guy like Pruitt is a very smart investment.

So far, Pruitt has ingratiated himself at the White House, proved his mettle to the fossil-fuel industry and even gotten late-night talk-show hosts to tweet about him ("Put simply, Scott Pruitt is a piece of shit," Jimmy Kimmel tweeted during Pruitt's confirmation hearing). But his honeymoon may also be coming to an end. In July, a federal court rejected his attempt to delay new rules on methane emissions. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has already challenged many of Pruitt's rollbacks, predicts, "We'll be spending a lot of time in court." Even more worrisome for Pruitt, his pals on the right are getting impatient. Myron Ebell, the noted climate-change denier who led Trump's EPA transition team, criticized Pruitt at a conservative conference in April, saying he is a "clever lawyer" but his "political ambition" may undermine his willingness to take on heavy lifts like challenging the endangerment finding. James Delingpole, a writer at Breitbart who is close to Bannon, said that if Pruitt refused to undo the endangerment finding, "it will represent a major setback for President Trump's war with the Climate Industrial Complex." Delingpole added, "If Scott Pruitt is not up to that task, then maybe it's about time he did the decent thing and handed over the reins to someone who is."

Pruitt faces risks within the agency, too. He has zero loyalty among the rank and file, which means, as one veteran staffer says, "Everything is gonna get slow-walked. Stuff that embarrasses Pruitt will be leaked. You will see the power of bureaucracy in action." Exhibit A: Subversive Twitter accounts like @altUSEPA and @ActualEPAFacts ("leading the members of The #Resistance to a better world") have hundreds of thousands of followers and offer a daily stream of Pruitt-damning commentary.

As Pruitt knows, the last EPA administrator who came in with a burn-it-to-the-ground agenda was Anne Gorsuch. Like Pruitt, Gorsuch promised to roll back regulations, slash the budget and cut agency staff. But after a year, she was under siege, turning the agency into what The New York Times called "an Augean stable, reeking of cynicism, mismanagement and decay." Eventually, the House cited Gorsuch, who repeatedly failed to hand over subpoenaed records, for contempt of Congress. The debacle led Reagan to ask for her resignation. "Pruitt may think that because Republicans control all three branches of government right now, he has immunity," says the former Obama official. "He does not. If he gets in trouble, he will be jettisoned faster than you can say 'Donald Trump Jr.' "

Then there is the possibility of an environmental disaster on his watch. Imagine a high-profile Deepwater Horizon-like catastrophe involving one of Pruitt's cronies in the oil-and-gas industry. The congressional investigation that would follow might shine a very bright – and unwelcome – light on Pruitt's corporate ties.

For now, Pruitt's rise could not come at a worse time for the planet. The Paris Agreement, which aims to limit CO2 emissions to a level that will prevent warming above 2 degrees Celsius, was signed last year by virtually every nation in the world. And not a moment too soon. To avert climate catastrophe, a recent study in Nature determined emissions need to be on a downward trajectory by 2020 – that's just three years away. America's decision to pull out of the Paris climate deal, physicist Stephen Hawking recently warned, could be "the tipping point where global warming becomes irreversible." Companies like Apple, Amazon and Wal-Mart are investing billions in clean energy, and U.S. cities and states are pushing ahead on their own (California just extended its landmark cap-and-trade program to cut carbon pollution). But on a global scale, for America to reboot its love for fossil fuels at this late stage is like taking five shots of tequila at midnight and promising to drive the rest of civilization home safely.

There are plenty of other reasons to be appalled by Pruitt. He is destroying the mission of the EPA. He is pushing policies that will make poor people poorer and rich people richer. And he is quite literally putting his own political career above the welfare of tens of thousands of people. While the air quality in many parts of America has gotten better in recent decades, air pollution still causes more than 200,000 premature deaths a year; even small increases in pollution mean more deaths. "He is sacrificing the health and welfare of children in order to give industry a few years of regulatory relief," says Jeff Carter, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

But it's likely that Pruitt won't hang around at the EPA long enough for anyone to count the bodies. His sights are set on higher things: the Oklahoma governor's race in 2018, or a run for Inhofe's Senate seat in 2020. Either way, Gavin Isaacs, the former head of the Oklahoma Bar Association, predicts "there will be more campaign contributions than anyone has ever seen." For that reason alone, Pruitt should not be underestimated. He may be on the wrong side of science and the wrong side of history, but given the post-factual trajectory of American politics right now, that doesn't mean his future isn't bright. It's the hope for a stable climate and a rapid transition to clean energy that's really in trouble.