Scott Pruitt must start doing his job, a federal judge has ruled.

Scott Pruitt. Image credits: Gage Skidmore.

Context

If you’ve got no idea what I’m talking about, Scott Pruitt is the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where he was appointed by President Trump. Pruitt has a long history of anti-environmental claims and actions, so his nomination came as a shock to many people. For instance, he said that greenhouse gases such as CO2 are “good for us” and that CO2 doesn’t cause global warming — something which scientists have specifically debunked, which has honestly been common sense for decades.

“I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” Pruitt said, adding, “there’s a tremendous disagreement about the degree of the impact” of “human activity on the climate,” Pruitt said for CNBC.

Naturally, that disappointed and frustrated many people. The next day, a not-for-profit group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the EPA, asking to see any scientific documents that would justify Pruitt’s position. Since Pruitt is now heading a national agency and has made statements that go directly against what scientists say, he needs to justify his position.

The EPA refused to produce such documents, so PEER sued them — and now, a federal judge has ordered that Pruitt must produce the documents. Of course, no such documents exist, since Pruitt’s position is essentially anti-science. Essentially, the judge has put Pruitt in a position where he must either produce misleading documents or admit that his position is baseless.

“Epistemological smokescreen”

At the trial, the EPA argued that it “would require EPA to spend countless hours researching and analyzing a vast trove of material on the effect of human activity on climate change,” according to a summary released by the court. But Judge Beryl A. Howell dismissed these objections, calling the EPA’s arguments “both misplaced and troubling.”

“The agency asks ‘how is one to even know precisely what documents one relies on in forming one’s beliefs?’” the judge wrote in her brief. “As the plaintiff points out, however, nothing in the FOIA request seeks information ‘about Administrator Pruitt’s beliefs or how they were formed.’” Instead, the FOIA only requests any agency documents that the administrator relied on to formulate his public statement.

The EPA also tried to argue that evidence for a factual statement by the administrator can be unknowable. Judge Howell called the whole defense “a thinly veiled effort to make the request more complex and burdensome than it is.”

“EPA’s strained attempt to raise an epistemological smokescreen will not work here to evade its obligations under the FOIA,” Judge Howell wrote.

“When the head of an agency makes a public statement that appears to contradict ‘the published research and conclusions of’ that agency, the FOIA provides a valuable tool for citizens… Compliance with such a request would help ‘ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society.’”

Surreal

If we take a step back and look at the whole situation, it just looks surreal. The head of the agency in charge of protecting the environment has slowly but surely taken his own agency apart while promoting anti-environmental policies. Eighteen US states are taking the EPA to court for weakening regulations, and even something as trivial as producing scientific documents is becoming a massive problem — because essentially, under Pruitt, the EPA has turned against everything it stands for.

This ruling could be a major turning point, though. The court ruling pushes Pruitt to do what any responsible leader would: justify his position. It’s not based on science, then what is it based on? We may soon learn the answer.

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