The Legal Battle Lines Are Being Drawn Against Trump’s EPA

The first legal challenges to Scott Pruitt's decisions as the anti-EPA chief of the EPA are rolling in

EPA head Scott Pruitt and President Donald Trump. — Getty Images
Jun 07, 2017 at 9:45 AM ET

This is shaping up to be a busy week for the EPA’s lawyers. Six conservation groups sued the agency Monday, arguing it had unlawfully suspended Obama-era rules intended to prevent methane leaks in oil and gas drilling. Elsewhere, seven states — along with still more activist groups — lodged an official objection Tuesday to the EPA’s decision not to ban a pesticide despite the agency’s own finding the chemical is toxic.

That groups and states are suing the EPA is nothing new, and Pruitt himself has bragged about the 14 times he sued the agency as Oklahoma’s attorney general. Many of the lawsuits already filed against Pruitt since his confirmation on February 17 are not tied specifically to his and President Donald Trump’s minimalist vision of environmental regulation. Rather, these suits are often efforts to force the EPA to respond to petitions and requests that date back to the Obama administration, including a lawsuit brought last year by 21 young people that argues the agency’s inaction on climate change imperils their future. The EPA generally faces a steady stream of lawsuits from industry, environmental groups, and state governments, regardless of who is president.

But this week’s legal challenges stand apart because they are direct responses to decisions the EPA has made under Pruitt’s leadership. In the case of the methane rule, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue the EPA announced a 90-day delay on an Obama-era regulation without advance notice or giving the public an opportunity to comment, which the law requires. In a May 30 statement announcing the stay, the EPA said it was responding to several petitions from industry and would prepare a revised rule that would then be open to public comment.

As for the pesticide chlorpyrifos, EPA scientists twice found during the Obama era that there was no safe level for the pesticide in human food. The EPA put forward regulations to ban the pesticide, but Pruitt officially dropped these proposals in March, instead announcing the safety of the pesticide could not again be considered until October 2022. The attorneys general of California, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Vermont, and Washington have joined to file an official objection to the EPA’s decision. More than a dozen groups representing affected communities, farmworkers, and conservationists have lodged their own appeal to the EPA and separately filed a lawsuit in a sweeping effort to compel the EPA to change course.

Whether these legal challenges will meet with success remains to be seen, but they represent the first indication of what the legal opposition to the Trump administration EPA looks like. The EPA’s regulatory role means it’s always facing lawsuits, but these are among the first that look to find out whether the law allows the Trump administration can run the EPA the way it wants.