NASHVILLE, Tenn.—The conservative movement might have given U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt cover for one of the few climate change fights he's hesitated to embrace.
Pruitt has expressed cautiousness about challenging the endangerment finding, the tome of scientific evidence for the harmful impacts of greenhouse gas emissions on human health. He's said "it needs to be enforced and respected," and those familiar with Pruitt's thinking say he believes challenging the finding is an uphill battle, costly and unlikely to succeed.
But Pruitt is in an uncomfortable position within the Republican ranks on that front. His most vocal allies outside the White House—a coterie of climate skeptics such as the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute—have prodded the EPA chief to take action on the endangerment finding.
They sought to force the issue at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an influential conservative organization. But the measure, which was backed by Heartland, backfired Wednesday. That collapse may have earned Pruitt some breathing room from the far-right flank of the conservative movement.
"I believe we have a good EPA director right now, and my understanding is that he has publicly said in the past that he doesn't want to reopen that," said Arizona state Sen. Debbie Lesko (R), who warned that she'd vote against the resolution if it was brought up. "Give him a chance and see what happens through that process. We have a guy that we actually like, so why go against him?"
A slim majority of state lawmakers, along with an overwhelming number of businesses, think tanks and trade organizations, opposed a measure at ALEC's policy summit this week that sought to encourage the Trump administration to challenge the finding, which underpins federal climate regulation. The unified backlash killed the draft resolution before it came up for a vote.
Those who objected to it suggested that ALEC, one of the nation's most influential conservative organizations, could have been seen as boxing in the Trump administration by calling for a review of the endangerment finding.
That was the official line. But there remains an appetite to tackle the far-reaching determination. Most state lawmakers interviewed by E&E News here continue to hope that Pruitt will eventually challenge the endangerment finding.
"Let's let them do their job," said Illinois state Rep. David Reis (R), who leads the ALEC Energy, Environment and Agriculture task force that oversaw the measure. "Let's not put out this policy when it might help or hinder the administration. I think most people in the room would like to see it changed or reviewed, but let's let them do that."
Others sensed a different motivation—that aligning ALEC with a position seen as advocating climate denial would be bad for business.
According to those in the room, Indiana state Rep. Dave Frizzell (R) made an impassioned speech comparing the effect of adopting the endangerment finding resolution to the fallout ALEC endured from the death of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old Floridian who was shot and killed in 2012 by George Zimmerman.
Zimmerman was eventually acquitted, as a jury said his actions were in self-defense and protected by the Sunshine State's "Stand Your Ground" law. The law had its origins in ALEC. That resulted in an exodus in corporate donors from the group.
"Speaking through one of the board members, [businesses] basically communicated the message. They said you're risking your funding from us if this resolution goes through," said Steve Milloy, a climate skeptic who defended the resolution. "Climate and energy are not Trayvon Martin. [Frizzell] basically said if this proposal goes through I'm afraid we're going to lose members. And Pfizer, Exxon and UPS stood up to drive that point home."
Exxon Mobil Corp., Pfizer Inc. and United Parcel Service Inc. all denounced the resolution publicly this week.
ALEC is known as a forum for libertarian model legislation, which lawmakers can introduce at state capitals across the country. It's often villainized for its ties to the billionaire Koch brothers and Exxon Mobil, which is under investigation for allegedly suppressing research about fossil fuels' effect on climate change.
But that's not to say Pruitt is on board with the endangerment finding. While falling short of directly criticizing the underlying science in the endangerment finding, he took issue yesterday at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing with how it was compiled.
"The work done in 2009 was accelerated by the agency, in fact, there was something done in 2009 that in my estimation didn't make much sense," Pruitt said. "They took work from the U.N. [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and transported it to the agency and adopted that as the core of the finding. It's a breach of process that occurred in 2009."
Separately, Pruitt has spoken of launching a "red team, blue team" exercise to debate climate science. Climate scientists have said the concept would overstate the positions of scientists who reject mainstream climate research.
Climate skeptics are eager for the opportunity, but they have wondered whether Pruitt is serious about launching that debate. Pruitt insists he is, but his supporters said they've seen little progress. Moreover, Pruitt's backers said a red team, blue team debate is inconsequential if it's not used to challenge the endangerment finding.
Many far-right conservatives want him to attack the finding and are growing impatient. Some saw the ALEC resolution as a way to call greater attention to the issue and to send a signal to Pruitt. Future regulations on greenhouse gases will remain a threat as long as the endangerment finding exists, they say.
"I know why people are reluctant. There's going to be a lot of blowback, it's not an easy thing to do, the agency is not fully staffed yet," Milloy said. "But it's not going to get any easier anytime soon, and there's no upside to leaving it there. The environmentalists will sue, and they will sue, and they'll keep pointing to the endangerment finding as long as it's there."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.