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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has drafted a new proposal to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, one that is far less stringent than the climate plan finalized in 2015 by former President Barack Obama.
In writing the new rule to replace Mr. Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the Trump administration is essentially accepting, for now, that the federal government is legally obligated to take action to address the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, even as President Trump has dismissed established climate science. But the new proposal is likely to spur only small tweaks to the nation’s energy system.
Details of the plan, which is being drafted by the Environmental Protection Agency and is expected to be sent to the White House for approval in coming days, were described to The New York Times by industry officials who have worked closely with the agency to shape the rule.
On Thursday, Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the E.P.A., submitted his resignation after facing 13 federal investigations into his ethics, spending and management practices. That move is unlikely to lead to a major policy shift at the agency: The new acting E.P.A. chief will be Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who shares Mr. Pruitt’s commitment to rolling back Obama-era climate policies.
Allison D. Wood, a partner at Hunton & Williams who represents several electric utilities, described it as “very significant” that the administration was putting forward a regulation that acknowledged the obligation to regulate planet-warming emissions.
Last October, when Mr. Pruitt announced that he would formally repeal the Clean Power Plan, industry leaders applauded the move. But behind the scenes, they also urged Mr. Pruitt to put forward a replacement, preferably one far weaker than the original.
The reasoning was twofold. Many companies worried that simply repealing the climate rule without offering a substitute would not hold up in court — and could leave an opening for even tougher regulations under a future Democratic president. But some companies also wanted to signal that they took climate change seriously.
“The climate issue is, we think, here to stay, so we do think it makes sense to have some sort of regulation,” said John M. McManus, senior vice president of environmental services at American Electric Power, one of the country’s biggest electric companies.
“Virtually everyone who cares about this issue has argued otherwise,” said Jeffrey R. Holmstead, a partner at the firm Bracewell and a former E.P.A. air chief. “Industry believes the E.P.A. has an obligation to regulate CO₂ from power plants, and they would be better off with a replacement rule.”
Ultimately, Mr. Pruitt chose that path, and the E.P.A. crafted a new plan that would technically regulate carbon dioxide without forcing major changes on the industry. Among other things, the new proposal would give states significant leeway in enforcing the rules. Industry attorneys said they expected it to borrow elements from a proposal Mr. Pruitt himself drafted for Oklahoma in 2014, in the course of challenging the Obama administration’s plan.
Michael Abboud, an E.P.A. spokesman, declined a request to discuss the proposal.
In a statement, Mr. Murray said that he would have preferred to see the Clean Power Plan scrapped with no replacement, but that any new plan should ensure “reliable, low-cost and fuel-secure electricity in America” and preserve coal mining jobs.
Before joining the E.P.A., Mr. Wheeler, the new acting administrator, worked as a lobbyist for Mr. Murray.
While details of the Trump administration’s proposal are not yet public, in the past environmental groups have argued that a narrower regulation would bring little to no benefit for the climate or clean air.
“We should be taking advantage of the falling cost of clean energy and the fast pace of market change to require even greater reductions, not write a standard that is intended to do nothing,” said David Doniger, director of the Climate and Clean Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Once the E.P.A. proposal is formally published, it will need to go through a public comment period before being finalized. The agency is hoping to complete the new rule by early 2019. After that happens, the agency intends to finalize its formal repeal of the Clean Power Plan. Environmental groups and several states have already pledged to challenge those moves in federal court.
“I’m being asked, really constantly asked, to comment on housing and security and travel,” she said. “Instead of seeing articles about efforts to return your agency to its core mission, I’m reading articles about your interactions with the industries that you regulate. Some of this undoubtedly is a result of the ‘gotcha’ age, but I do think there are legitimate questions that need to be answered.’
Here’s what to watch for as Mr. Pruitt testifies.
What the Democrats are likely to ask
Democrats intend, as they did last month, to throw the kitchen sink at Mr. Pruitt. And they have plenty to ask about.
In the three weeks since Mr. Pruitt testified before the two House committees, the public has learned that the administrator has allowed lobbyists and Washington power brokers to arrange his foreign travel, that Mr. Pruitt’s aggressive effort to shroud his meetings and speaking engagements in secrecy was done primarily to avoid uncomfortable and unexpected questions and not out of a concern for security as his staff had claimed, and that E.P.A. aides took steps to conceal a dinner Mr. Pruitt held in Rome with Cardinal George Pell last year after they learned that the cardinal had been charged with sexual abuse.
That’s in addition to a raft of other longstanding questions about Mr. Pruitt’s first-class travel and the need for a 24-hour security detail of at least 20 people that has cost taxpayers more than $3 million so far.
Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, the top Democrat on the panel, said Wednesday that he had asked the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, to investigate whether the E.P.A. acted improperly when it appeared to mock Democrats on Twitter after the Senate voted to confirm the agency’s second-in-command, Andrew Wheeler.
The tweet, sent from the agency’s official account on April 13, said, “The Senate does its duty: Andrew Wheeler confirmed by Senate as deputy administrator of @EPA. The Democrats couldn’t block the confirmation of environmental policy expert and former EPA staffer under both a Republican and a Democrat president.” Mr. Udall asked the accountability office to issue a legal opinion on whether the tweet violated the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits the use of federal funds for publicity or propaganda.
“This communication did nothing to further the public’s understanding of the environment or public health — and as an act of pure partisan taunting, the case is clear for why it represents a violation of federal law,” Mr. Udall said in a statement, adding, “We can add this investigation to the ever-expanding list of Scott Pruitt’s ethical transgressions.”
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What Republicans are expected to talk about
This one is tougher. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, chairwoman of the appropriations committee’s environment panel, called for Mr. Pruitt to testify at a time when Republican support for Mr. Pruitt appeared to be on a downswing. Since then, however, Republicans have tamped down criticism of the E.P.A. chief.
One notable exception is Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
Mr. Grassley on Tuesday threatened to be the first Republican to call on Mr. Pruitt to resign, citing his frustration with the administrator over waivers the E.P.A. has given to small fuel refineries exempting them from a federal ethanol mandate on the nation’s gasoline. While Mr. Grassley is not a member of the committee that Mr. Pruitt will face, his concerns are shared by other corn-state Republicans and could become an issue at the hearing.
If past is prologue, though, Mr. Pruitt is likely to hear Republicans express concerns about his stewardship of E.P.A. in their opening statements but mostly draw attention to the regulatory rollbacks that they, and many of their constituents, support.
What Pruitt is expected to say
Last time around, Mr. Pruitt repeatedly shifted blame to members of his staff for the spending and ethical issues dogging him.
He said his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, had been solely responsible for giving $72,000 in raises to two aides who previously worked with Mr. Pruitt in Oklahoma. He said career staff members had signed off on spending $43,000 to install a secure phone booth, an expense that was ultimately found to violate federal law. And he said his security detail had insisted he fly first class for his own protection.
In one exchange with Representative Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, Mr. Pruitt had to be asked three times if he was the E.P.A. administrator before answering in the affirmative, but avoided answering whether the buck stopped with him.
“That’s not a yes or no answer,” Mr. Pruitt replied then. It’s a safe bet Mr. Pruitt will continue to tread as carefully Wednesday, and the E.P.A. spokesman, Jahan Wilcox, said in a statement that Mr. Pruitt remained focused on policy.
“From advocating to leave the Paris Accord, working to repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan and Waters of the United States, declaring a war on lead and cleaning up toxic Superfund sites, Administrator Pruitt is focused on advancing President Trump’s agenda of regulatory certainty and environmental stewardship,” Mr. Wilcox said.
Where the president stands
President Trump has remained steadfast in his support for Mr. Pruitt, despite the arguments of several White House aides — including John F. Kelly, the president’s chief of staff — that the administrator should be fired. Asked last week if he still had confidence in Mr. Pruitt, the president replied, “I do.”
For nearly 20 years, Williams worked as a contractor, building houses in Kansas City. But work dried up after the financial crisis hit in 2007. Williams decided to return to the family farm near Waverly, an area of gently rolling plains, and give farming a try. His family had farmed some when he was a teenager before leasing the land to tenants for years, and he knew it was difficult to make ends meet. But he was inspired by an article about a North Dakota rancher and farmer named Gabe Brown, who claimed to have developed, through trial and error, a more efficient and cost-effective way to farm.
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The gist of Brown’s argument was that if you focus on the health of the soil and not on yield, eventually you come out ahead, not necessarily because you grow more corn or wheat per acre but because the reduction in spending on fertilizer and other inputs lets you produce each bushel of grain more cheaply. Williams decided to follow Brown’s prescription. “If after three years, I’m bankrupt, I’ll admit it was a bad joke,” Williams remembers thinking.
Seven years later, his gamble seems to have paid off. He started with 60 acres, now farms about 2,000 and, when I visited last fall, had just purchased an additional 200. In one of his fields, we walked down a lane he had mowed through his warm-weather cover crops — plants grown not to be harvested, but to enrich the soil — which towered over us, reaching perhaps eight feet. They included sorghum, a canelike grass with red-tinted tassels spilling from the tops, mung beans and green-topped daikon radishes low to the ground. Each plant was meant to benefit the earth in a different way. The long radishes broke it up and drew nutrients toward the surface; tall grasses like sorghum produced numerous fine rootlets, adding organic material to the land; legumes harbored bacteria that put nitrogen into the soil. His 120-strong herd of British white cattle — he introduced livestock in 2013 — would eventually eat through the field, turning the plants into cow patties and enriching the soil further. Then he would plant his cash crops. “Had I not found this way to farm,” he told me, “we would not be farming.”
A mat of dead vegetation — from cover crops, cash-crop residue and dung — covered Williams’s fields. The mulch, along with his cover crops, inhibited weeds from becoming established, a major concern for conventional farmers, because so many weeds have evolved resistance to herbicides. “I don’t lie awake at night wondering how I’m going to kill weeds,” Williams said.
Williams doesn’t till his fields. By minimizing soil disturbance, no-till farming prevents erosion, helps retain moisture and leaves the soil ecosystem — worms, fungi, roots and more — mostly intact. At one of his soybean fields, Williams showed me how this translated to soil with “structure.” “See how that crumbles into a cottage-cheese look?” he said, massaging a fistful of earth. Small clods fell through his fingers. “That’s what you want.” Worm holes riddled the dirt, giving it a spongelike quality that was critical, he said, for absorbing rain and preventing runoff. Weather patterns seemed to be changing, he noted. Rain used to arrive in numerous light storms. Now fewer storms came, but they were more intense. “We have to be able to capture rain and store it,” he said.
By focusing on soil health, Williams says he has reduced his use of herbicides by 75 percent and fertilizers by 45 percent. He doesn’t use pesticides — he relies instead on beneficial insects for pest control — and he saves money by not buying expensive genetically modified, herbicide-resistant seed. He estimates that he produces a bushel of soybeans for about 20 percent less than his conventionally farming neighbors. Last fall, he claims, his yields ranked among the highest in the county. While doing all this, he has so far raised the amount of soil organic matter, a rough predictor of soil carbon concentrations, from around 2 percent to 3.5 percent in some fields. Gabe Brown, for his part, says he has more than tripled his soil carbon since the 1990s. And an official with the U.S.D.A.’s Agricultural Research Service confirmed to me that the amount of carbon in Brown’s soil — what his farming has pulled from the atmosphere — was between two and three times as high as it was in his neighbors’ land.
The successes of Brown and Williams suggest that farmers can increase carbon in the soil while actually reducing their overall expenses. This could be vital, because in order for carbon farming to have an impact on the climate, as much land as possible, including both crop- and rangeland, will have to be included in the effort.
Critics of regenerative agriculture say that it can’t be adopted broadly and intensively enough to matter — or that if it can, the prices of commodities might be affected unfavorably. Mark Bradford, a professor of soils and ecosystem ecology at Yale, questions what he sees as a quasi-religious belief in the benefits of soil carbon. The recommendation makes sense intuitively, he told me. But the extent to which carbon increases crop yield hasn’t been quantified, making it somewhat “faith-based.”
William Schlesinger, an emeritus soil scientist at Duke, points out that “regenerative” practices might inadvertently cause emissions to rise elsewhere. If you stop tilling to increase soil carbon, for example, but use more herbicides because you have more weeds, then you probably haven’t changed your overall emissions profile, he says. He thinks the climate-mitigation potential of carbon farming has been greatly oversold.
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Williams has reduced his herbicide use, not increased it, but Schlesinger’s broader point — about the need for a careful overall accounting of greenhouse gases — is important. Williams, Brown and others like them aren’t focused on climate change; no one really knows if the carbon they put in the ground more than offsets the methane produced by their cows, for example. What they do demonstrate is that augmenting soil carbon while farming is not only possible, but also beneficial, even in a business sense. And that makes the prospect of rolling out these practices on a larger scale much easier to imagine.
The carbon-farming idea is gathering momentum at a time when national climate policy is backsliding. The Trump administration has reversed various Obama-era regulations meant to combat or adapt to climate change, including the Clean Power Plan, which required power plants to reduce their carbon emissions, and a rule instructing the federal government to consider sea-level rise and other effects of a changing climate when building new roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
In the absence of federal leadership on climate — and as emissions continue to rise globally, shrinking the time available to forestall worst-case outcomes — state and local governments (as well as nonprofits) have begun to look into carbon farming. Last year, Hawaii passed legislation meant to keep it aligned with the Paris agreement, which President Trump has said he will abandon; the state has also created a task force to research carbon farming. The New York state assemblywoman Didi Barrett introduced legislation that would make tax credits available to farmers who increase soil carbon, presumably through methods like those employed by Darin Williams and Gabe Brown. A bill to educate farmers about soil has been proposed in Massachusetts. And in Maryland, legislation focused on soil health passed in 2017. Other carbon-farming projects are in the works in Colorado, Arizona and Montana.
But it is California, already in the vanguard on climate-mitigation efforts, that has led the way on carbon farming. By 2050, the state aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 20 percent of what they were in 1990. Nearly half its 58 counties have farmers and ranchers at various stages of developing and implementing carbon-farming plans. San Francisco, which already has the largest urban composting program in the country, hopes to become a model carbon-farming metropolis. Cities don’t have much room to plant trees or undertake other practices that remove carbon from the atmosphere, says Deborah Raphael, the director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment. But they can certainly produce plenty of compost. “If we can show other cities how doable it is to get green waste out of landfills, we can prove the concept,” Raphael told me. “We like to say that San Francisco rehearses the future.”
Many of California’s carbon-farming efforts owe a debt to Wick, Creque and Silver. In 2008, they founded the Marin Carbon Project, a consortium of ranchers, scientists and land managers. The goal is to develop science-based carbon-farming practices and to help establish the incentives needed to encourage California farmers to adopt them. Silver continues to publish her findings in respected journals. Creque also started a nonprofit, the Carbon Cycle Institute, that assists farmers and ranchers in making carbon-farming plans.
Wick has thrown himself into the policy realm, hiring a lobbyist in Sacramento to push a carbon-farming agenda. (In 2014, he even testified before Congress, outlining the project’s discoveries and explaining how compost could increase soil carbon on public lands. He deliberately mentioned “climate” only once.) Educating policymakers matters because, as Torri Estrada, executive director of the Carbon Cycle Institute, points out, carbon-mitigation efforts that focus on agriculture can be much cheaper per ton of carbon avoided than the flashier energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects that usually get most of the attention. The major obstacle to their implementation, he says, is that government officials don’t understand or know about them.
California’s Healthy Soils Initiative, which Wick helped shape, explicitly enlists agriculture in the fight against climate change. In principle, that means this carbon farmers can receive money from the state’s climate-mitigation funds not just for compost but also for 34 other soil-improving practices already approved by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. That’s important because the compost needed to cover just a few acres can cost thousands of dollars. Wick has also tried to tap federal funding. Once N.R.C.S. scientists vet Silver’s work, a compost amendment could become the service’s 35th recommendation. As a result, farm bill money, which farmers receive to subsidize food production, could help finance carbon farming done according to Wick’s protocol — not to fight climate change explicitly (which is now seen as politicized), but to bolster the health of soil (which isn’t).
As a carbon-farming tool, compost bears some notable advantages — namely, it works both preventively and correctively. Composting prevents emissions from the starter material — manure, food scraps — that, if allowed to decompose, might emit potent greenhouse gases. (About one-fifth of United States methane emissions comes from food and other organic material decomposing in dumps.) By enhancing plant growth, it also aids in removing carbon from the atmosphere, a corrective process. And because the carbon in nearly all organic material was originally pulled from the atmosphere during photosynthesis, compost that enters the soil represents the storage of carbon removed from the air earlier — the grass eaten by cows that became manure, or the trees that became wood chips — and at a different location. That, too, is corrective.
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Calla Rose Ostrander, Wick’s right-hand person at the Marin Carbon Project, told me that the project’s greater goal is to completely reframe how we think about waste, to see it as more than a nuisance — to recognize it as a resource, a tool that can help us garden our way out of the climate problem. Before the modern era, farmers had no choice but to return human and animal waste to the fields. (Wick is looking into the possibility of composting human waste as well; the end product is called humanure.) In a sense, Wick and Ostrander seek to resurrect these ancient practices and, with the aid of modern science, to close the loop among livestock, plants, air and soil — and between cities and the agricultural land that feeds them.
What seems to most impress experts about the Marin Carbon Project is the quality of Silver’s research. Eric Toensmeier, the author of “The Carbon Farming Solution” and a lecturer at Yale, says that the project figured out a new way to increase carbon storage on the semiarid grasslands that cover so much of the world. Jason Weller, the former head of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, told me that “the level of science investment is out of the ordinary, or extraordinary, for a group that is really self-started.” Weller added that the agency’s scientists still needed to vet the research, which they are in the midst of doing. In late 2016 the agency oversaw the application of compost to different California regions — inland, Southern, Northern — to see if land in various conditions would, like Wick’s ranch, suck up atmospheric carbon.
But the group also has critics. “I’m very skeptical of their results and their claims,” William Horwath, a soil scientist at the University of California, Davis, told me. He wants to see Silver’s experiments replicated. This is the project’s major weakness: Its big idea is based almost entirely on extrapolation from a few acres in California. At this point, it’s impossible to say whether compost can cause land to become a carbon sponge in all climates and conditions, and for how long treated grassland will continue to take in and retain its carbon.
Cows, a flash point in any discussion about climate change, may also present problems. Ruminants burp methane, and while carbon farming does not require their presence, some argue that merely accepting them on the land undermines the goal of reaching a carbon-neutral or -negative future. Livestock emissions account for almost half the heat-trapping gases associated with agriculture, so an obvious way to reduce emissions is to decrease the number of cows on the planet. Instead of dumping compost on rangeland, says Ian Monroe, a lecturer on energy and climate at Stanford University, why not allow forests cleared for pasture to regrow, and change people’s eating habits so they include less meat?
Criticism is directed at compost too. The stuff requires energy to produce; huge machines are required to shred the material and keep it aerated. And it’s unclear if compost, like synthetic fertilizer, can cause nitrogen pollution when put on the land, or how much greenhouse gas composting itself generates. (As long as compost mounds are regularly aerated to prevent low-oxygen conditions, composting is thought to produce few emissions.)
Organic material from municipal sources can contain bits of plastic and glass, which no one wants on their fields. Manure might carry seeds of invasive plants. (Silver has seen no evidence of this.) Spreading compost on public rangeland could disrupt plant communities, squeezing out species adapted to conditions of scarcity. And in any carbon-farming scheme, who will monitor and verify that far-flung stretches of land are really absorbing and storing the carbon as they’re supposed to?
Horwath considers the amount of compost used in Silver’s research — about 10 times the usual application, he estimates — to be unrealistically high for practical use. “It seems an inordinately large amount to apply to any system,” he told me. And given what he sees as the many unknowns in Silver’s research, that compost would be put to better use on cropland where, he says, scientists know with greater certainty that it could improve water retention and the efficiency of fertilizer.
Then there’s the problem of supply. Demand for San Francisco’s compost, which mostly goes to vineyards in California’s wine country, already outstrips what’s available. But Wick thinks more starter material shouldn’t be hard to find: Americans throw out between 30 and 40 percent of all the food they buy, sending it to landfills where it rots and generates greenhouse gases. Silver has calculated that there’s enough organic waste material in California to treat one-quarter of its rangeland every few decades.
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Still, given the energy requirements, the logistical headaches and the cost, skeptics question whether spreading compost across extensive portions of the world’s surface — including conflict zones in the Sahel or Central Asia — is really feasible. Even if it is, soils probably can’t soak up carbon indefinitely. If they have a saturation point, increases in carbon will eventually stop when that moment is reached. And because soil degradation can cause the release of whatever carbon it holds, treated lands would have to be well cared for in perpetuity.
On a cool autumn day at Wick and Rathmann’s ranch house, Wick fielded phone calls while I wandered around the cluttered, semicircular room that served as his office and meeting space. A whiteboard displayed scribbles from a presentation on the carbon cycle. Coils of warmly hued yarn hung from the doorways. They came via a local nonprofit dedicated to climate-friendly ranching practices called Fibershed. And draped over a chair was a T-shirt bearing what might as well have been Wick’s battle cry: “seq-C,” it read, punny shorthand for “sequester carbon.” Under that it read, “Doing it in the dirt.”
Down the road, he showed me a composting facility that Creque dreamed up initially. He and Wick hoped it would serve as a self-sustaining prototype. “Anything that has ever been alive can be composted,” he told me, surveying the 10-foot-tall piles of chicken droppings and feathers, horse bedding (manure and straw) and shredded trees. A tractor mixed woody refuse with animal waste — to get the composting process started requires the right mix of carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials. (That’s why some backyard composters recommend urinating on the pile to kick things off: Urine is rich in nitrogen.)
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WASHINGTON — An assessment of threats aimed at Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, conducted by the agency’s Homeland Security office in February, undercuts claims made by Mr. Pruitt’s security team to justify millions of dollars in security expenditures, according to an internal document obtained by a Senate Democrat.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island wrote in a letter on Tuesday to John Barrasso, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, that the E.P.A.’s Homeland Security Intelligence Team reviewed an October memo and found no specific credible threats to the administrator. The October memo was created by Mr. Pruitt’s protective security detail, led by Pasquale Perrotta, who is known as Nino, and was used to justify much of Mr. Pruitt’s large security detail and first-class travel.
The same February assessment described repeated efforts by E.P.A. intelligence officials to tell the agency’s inspector general and senior leadership “that ‘the threat’ to the Administrator was being inappropriately mischaracterized” by Mr. Pruitt’s security detail, Mr. Whitehouse wrote in the letter, sent jointly with Senator Tom Carper, a Democrat of Delaware.
“It is hard to reconcile the public statements of E.P.A., and the President, with these internal and external assessments,” Mr. Whitehouse and Mr. Carper wrote. They also acknowledged, though, that the materials may be incomplete.
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The documents weren’t publicly released with the letter, they said, in order to protect any current security efforts that may be in effect.
The courts, for instance, found that the E.P.A. had ignored clear legal statutes when they ruled that Mr. Pruitt had illegally delayed a regulation curbing methane emissions from new oil and gas wells and that the agency had broken the law by missing a deadline last year to enact ozone restrictions.
In other cases — including one in which a federal court ordered the E.P.A. to act on a Connecticut request to reduce pollution from a Pennsylvania power plant, and one where judges demanded quick action from the agency on new lead paint standards — the courts warned Mr. Pruitt that avoiding enacting regulations already on the books was an inappropriate effort to repeal a rule without justifying the action.
“The E.P.A. has a clear duty to act,” a panel of judges of the San Francisco-based Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit wrote in a 2-1 decision finding that the agency must revise its lead paint standards in 90 days, as regulations required. The agency had tried to delay the revisions for six years.
In an interview on Friday, the White House spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said that Mr. Trump felt that Mr. Pruitt had done a satisfactory job at the EPA. Her comments suggested that Mr. Pruitt’s work checking off items on the president’s agenda — including rolling back a large number of environmental protections — may weigh heavily as a counterbalance to the ethics questions related to his travel expenses, management practices and his rental of a living space from the wife of a prominent lobbyist.
Describing Mr. Trump’s view of Mr. Pruitt, she said: “He likes the work product.”
Liz Bowman, an E.P.A. spokeswoman, disputed the criticisms of the agency’s work. “E.P.A. does its due diligence, consults with O.M.B. and other federal agencies to ensure that its work is legally defensible,” she said in an email, referring to the Office of Management and Budget, the office that coordinates and evaluates policy across the executive branch.
One of the chief examples cited by Mr. Pruitt’s critics came this week when the E.P.A. filed its legal justification for what is arguably the largest rollback of an environmental rule in the Trump administration: the proposed undoing of an Obama-era regulation aimed at cutting pollution of planet-warming greenhouse gases from vehicle tailpipes.
Mr. Pruitt made his case for the rollback in a 38-page document filed on Tuesday that, experts say, was devoid of the kind of supporting legal, scientific and technical data that courts have shown they expect to see when considering challenges to regulatory changes.
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“There’s an incredible lack of numbers,” said James McCargar, a former senior policy analyst at the E.P.A. who worked on vehicle emissions programs and remains in close touch with career staffers who work on those programs. “If this gets challenged in court, I just don’t see how they provide anything that gives a technical justification to undo the rule.”
The rules Mr. Pruitt is targeting would require automakers to nearly double the average fuel economy of passenger vehicles to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Automakers have argued the rule is onerous, forcing them to invest heavily in building hybrid and electric vehicles.
As part of the process, Mr. Pruitt filed the 38-page document, which is meant to supply the government’s legal justification for rolling back the rule. About half the document consists of quotations from automakers laying out their objections to the rule. By comparison, the Obama administration’s 1,217-page document justifying its implementation of the regulation included technical, scientific and economic analyses justifying the rule.
Experts in environmental policy said the lack of analytical arguments in this week’s E.P.A. filing surprised them. “This document is unprecedented,” said Mr. McCargar, the former E.P.A. senior policy analyst. “The E.P.A. has just never done anything like this.”
John M. DeCicco, a professor of engineering and public policy at the University of Michigan Energy Institute, said the filing was a departure from the practices of previous Republican and Democratic administrations.
“A president or an administrator or somebody can’t just say, ‘I’m going to change the rule,’ without justifying it very, very carefully,” Mr. DeCicco said. “As a scientist who’s worked on these issues, I’m saying, where are the numbers? Where’s the data?”
Most of the document consists of arguments quoting directly from public comments made by automaker lobbyists, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Global Automakers, that the pollution rules will be unduly burdensome on the auto industry, as well as public comments from Toyota, Fiat Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz and Mitsubishi.
While it does include arguments opposing the regulatory rollback from groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists and the state of California, it does not contain what environmental experts say is the critical element of a legally strong justification for changing an E.P.A. regulation: Technical analysis of both sides of the argument leading to a conclusion aimed at persuading a judge that the change is defensible.
Seth Michaels, a spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggested that, in its reuse of arguments by the automakers’ lobby, the emissions-rollback document echoed Mr. Pruitt’s modus operandi when he was the Oklahoma Attorney General.
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“It’s reminiscent of the 2011 letter Scott Pruitt sent as Oklahoma AG to the E.P.A., in which he took a letter drafted by layers for Devon Energy and stuck his name on it with minimal edits,” Mr. Michaels said.
A 2014 investigation by The Times found that lobbyists for Devon Energy, an Oklahoma oil and gas company, drafted letters for Mr. Pruitt to send to the E.P.A., the Interior Department, the Office of Management and Budget and President Obama, outlining the economic hardship of various environmental rules.
Between 2011 and 2017, Mr. Pruitt filed suit against the E.P.A. 14 times, and lost almost all of the cases.
Most were filed in conjunction with the Republican attorneys general of a dozen or more other states, making it difficult to know precisely which legal arguments his office contributed, legal experts said. Mr. Pruitt frequently took a lead role in the cases.
In the end, “a lot of those arguments were losers,” said Richard L. Revesz, an expert in environmental law at New York University.
In particular, Mr. Revesz noted a case brought by the group against President Obama’s signature climate change regulation, the Clean Power Plan, which Mr. Pruitt is now working to overturn from within the E.P.A. The lawsuit challenged a draft proposal of the regulation, which was an unprecedented move that a federal court quickly struck down, saying that they could not legally challenge a draft.
While the attorneys general, including Mr. Pruitt, garnered media attention for the case, “The argument they had was ludicrous,” Mr. Revesz said.
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The group did, however, score one major victory: After the Obama administration issued its final version of the Clean Power Plan, it successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to temporarily halt implementation of the rule.
Since taking the helm of E.P.A., Mr. Pruitt has barnstormed the country, meeting with farmers, coal miners and local leaders and promising an end to his predecessor’s regulatory approach. He also has favored closed-door policy speeches to conservative think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation, to roll out policy initiatives.
The Heritage Foundation was the venue Mr. Pruitt chose this year to say that he would make changes to how scientific studies are considered at the agency. Both critics and supporters of Mr. Pruitt said that, by making the proposal in a political fashion rather than changing the rules in a quieter but potentially more lasting way means that changes like these are more vulnerable to being undone by a future administration.
Environmental groups have welcomed Mr. Pruitt’s court losses. Joanne Spalding, chief climate counsel for the Sierra Club, said she was pleased by what she called “sloppy” and “careless” E.P.A. legal work. “It’s fine with us,” she said. “Do a bad job repealing these things, because then we get to go to court and win.”
Thomas J. Pyle, a supporter of Mr. Pruitt’s and the president of the Institute for Energy Research, a think tank that promotes fossil fuels, described that as spin. “The environmental left portrays Scott Pruitt as a devil incarnate in their fund-raising solicitations, yet brag about how ineffective he is in dismantling Obama’s climate rules,” he said. “Which is it?”
Still, some conservatives said they were worried that Mr. Pruitt was more interested in media attention than policy and feared more legal losses. “If the goal is to generate temporary relief and to make a splash, then what they’re doing is terrifically fine,” said Jonathan H. Adler, director of the Center for Business Law & Regulation at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.
But if the Trump administration wants to permanently change the regulatory environment for business, he said, the E.P.A. cannot take such a “quick and dirty approach” to unraveling regulations. “I’m suspicious that two, three years down the road there’s going to be much to show for all the fireworks we’re getting now,” Mr. Adler said.
Mr. Pruitt’s challenge raised the specter of a sharply divided auto market in the United States: one with cleaner cars in California and in states that follow its lead, and another with higher-polluting cars concentrated in the middle of the country.
That could pose a logistical challenge for automakers, requiring substantially different car designs, sending the American auto industry into uncharted territory.
Mary Nichols, California’s top air pollution regulator, vowed to defend the state’s stricter rules.
“This is a politically motivated effort to weaken clean vehicle standards,” said Ms. Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board. California, she said, “will vigorously defend the existing clean vehicle standards.”
The E.P.A. has not said how far those rules should be rolled back, only that it would start a new rule-making process to set “more appropriate” standards.
Mr. Pruitt was expected to publicly announce the effort on Tuesday at a Chevrolet dealership in suburban Virginia. But those plans have been complicated by an angry pushback from some dealerships who do not want to be associated with the announcement, according to two Chevy dealers who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing their relationship with General Motors.
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“They don’t want the E.P.A. to highlight Chevy,” said Adam Lee, chairman of Lee Auto Malls, which runs Nissan, Honda and Chrysler dealerships in Maine, and is close to the Chevy dealerships’ thinking. “They don’t want to be the bad guys.”
“Trump has been saying these standards are crushing the auto industry. But we’ve had record years for the past four or five years, in terms of sales and profit,” he added. “So I’m not sure what he’s thinking. It almost makes you think he doesn’t have the facts.”
In its defense of the Obama-era rules, California was joined Monday by a coalition of at least seven state attorneys-general, including Eric Schneiderman of New York, as well as more than 30 mayors, who said they would “vigorously resist” any effort by the Trump administration to prevent states and cities from enforcing emissions standards.
“We are committed to using our market power and our regulatory authority to ensure that the vehicle fleets deployed in our jurisdictions fully meet or exceed the promises made by the auto industry in 2012,” the coalition announced.
Environmental groups also assailed the move.
“The Trump administration’s decision will take America backward by jeopardizing successful safeguards that are working to clean our air, save drivers money at the pump, and drive technological innovation that creates jobs,” Luke Tonachel, director of clean vehicles and fuels at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.
“The American public overwhelmingly supports strong vehicle standards because they cut the cost of driving, reduce air pollution, and combat climate change. Backing off now is irresponsible and unwarranted.”