After much speculation, President-elect Donald Trump has chosen Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, which is charged with protecting the nation's air and water from big polluters. Pruitt is a Southern Baptist lawyer whose main claim to fame is the many lawsuits he has filed against the very agency he is now supposed to lead, as well as orchestrating the Republican attack on the Clean Power Plan, President Obama's most important achievement to slow global warming. By picking Pruitt, Trump not only signals that he doesn't care about the earth's climate – and why would he, he rarely steps out of an air-conditioned room – but that he intends to perpetuate the fantasy that the glory days of the fossil-fuel industry in America are not over.
But they are. Big Coal is going down fast, and oil and gas won't be far behind. The world is transitioning to carbon-free energy, and Trump's appointment of Big Oil's lackey to head the EPA may slow it down a bit, but it won't change the fundamental direction. What Trump is really doing is sending a political signal to voters in coal country and Rust Belt states that the glory days are back. This is just another episode in Trump's long con of the American public.
As a tool of the fossil-fuel industry, Pruitt has impeccable credentials. He's deeply woven into the empire of fossil fuels – nobody rises to prominence in Oklahoma without kissing the ring of oil and gas. He is also a climate change denier who, like many others, masquerades as a free-speech advocate. (The science is "far from settled," he claims, "and should not be settled with threat of persecution.") He is a lawyer who cites the U.S. Constitution as evidence that the federal government has no business telling oil and gas companies how to run their operations. As attorney general, he once sent a three-page letter to the EPA accusing the agency of grossly overestimating the amount of air pollution caused by fracking rigs in his state. The letter had been written by lawyers for Devon Energy, one of Oklahoma's biggest oil and gas companies. All Pruitt did was put his name on it and pass it along.
As head of the EPA, Pruitt's real job will be to pump up the fossil-fuel bubble. You can expect regulations will be rolled back, enforcement neutered, science tweaked. The goal here is not to help the people of coal country who voted for Trump keep their jobs a little longer, but to boost the stock prices of companies like Peabody Energy, the coal giant and major force in the climate-denial industry that declared bankruptcy last year and has been struggling to rebound.
It's also to help billionaire bottom-feeders like Wilber Ross, Trump's pick for secretary of commerce, cash in on his investments. Ross specializes in buying distressed companies, then cutting costs, busting unions, pumping up revenues and cashing out. This not just sleazy but deadly: Ross was owner of the Sago mine in West Virginia, where 12 miners died in an underground explosion in 2006. It was later found to have 206 safety violations. In recent years, Ross has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in down-and-out oil and gas companies. Pruitt's job, above all else, is to inflate the fossil-fuel bubble so investors like Ross can cash out. If Greenland melts a little faster because of it, and a few million people are flooded out of their homes, who cares? This is not about building a better future. It's about ripping off the present.
As for the voters in West Virginia and Pennsylvania and other fossil-fuel states who voted for Trump and think this charade will bring back their jobs – well, Trump doesn't really care about them either. If he did, he wouldn't perpetuate the fantasy that the coal industry is coming back, a lie that is already beginning to sink in in coal country. He would be building better schools, expanding health care coverage instead of gutting it (especially for miners who suffer from black lung) and fighting for new jobs that don't depend on blowing up mountains.
Of course, to say that Pruitt's nomination is a con doesn't mean putting a guy like him in charge of the EPA won't do tremendous damage. Every ton of fossil fuel we burn increases climate risks, bringing us closer to destabilizing earth's operating system. He will likely expedite permits for mountaintop coal mines, which means more blasted mountains and buried streams in Appalachia. He's also likely to issue waivers on air pollution, loosen standards for toxic substances, raise amount of pesticides viewed as acceptable by agriculture, de-list Superfund sites and direct money away from communities of color, stop the EPA from collecting data on climate change and hire scientific frauds like Willie Soon to powerful government positions. Maybe he'll even take a cue from Florida Gov. Rick Scott and ban the phrase "climate change" in any EPA documents.
If there is any good news here, it's that Trump's attempt to pump up the fossil-fuel industry and enrich his fat-cat friends won't last long. The American fossil fuel industry is a beast from another century – old, arthritic and decaying. The only question is how much money Trump and his pals will extract, and how much damage will be done, before Americans figure this out.