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The Man in the Soundproof Booth


Mountain top removal coal mining. Photo: JW Randolph.

At last the war is over. Scott Pruitt was ushered out to unfurl the white flag and announce the surrender. In the latest humiliating defeat, the United States went to war against coal and lost, the first national offensive to be routed by an inanimate object.

Pruitt declared the unconditional surrender in his home state of Kentucky, one of the bloodiest battlegrounds, indeed a veritable bituminous Gettysburg, of the war. In Kentucky and neighboring West Virginia, the fighting had come to be known as the War of Green Aggression.

The plans for the ceasefire were apparently hatched in a soundproof booth inside Pruitt’s bunker at the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC, quietly constructed for $25,000 using the agency’s black budget. Why the secrecy? To keep the dire news from leaking to the troops on the frontlines. After all, to paraphrase John Kerry, who would want to be the last EPA case officer to fall in a failed assault on coal?

From his soundproof booth, Pruitt made his secret entreaties with the emissaries of coal, negotiating the terms of surrender, the fine details of the armistice and the reparations that would be made to the enemy. There were talks of subsidies, gutted regulations, bailouts, government support of exports. The capitulation would be complete.

Trump campaigned for more than a year to end Obama’s martial entanglements. The problem was where to find a general, who could find a way to lose with dignity? In Scott Pruitt, Trump discovered his Marshal Pétain.  As attorney general of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt had proved himself one of the most vocal peaceniks in the covert wars on fossil fuels.

A failed baseball player at the University Kentucky, Pruitt fled the Midwest for Oklahoma, where he consoled himself at the University of Tulsa Law School (ranked 82th in the nation) and later a small-time legal practice. But Pruitt soon bored of the law and launched a career in politics, landing a seat in the Oklahoma state senate in 2006. It was here in the oil patch where Scott Pruitt became a fossil fuels pacifist, his conversion facilitated by his close friendship with oil industry tycoon Harold Hamm, CEO of Continental Resources.

Pruitt was skillfully trained in anti-war organizing techniques at numerous retreats hosted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the rightwing “model bill” factory, that successfully pushed through energy deregulation bills in the late 1990s which many war historians now consider to be one of the hidden casus belli of the War on Coal, which would erupt in fury 15 years later.

ALEC, which functions as a kind of Highlander Center for training the Coal War resistance, tutored the eager young pacifist on such matters as the scientific flaws in climate change theory, drilling into Pruitt’s mind the notion that the consequences of global warming, if indeed the planet is warming, might well prove to be “neutral or beneficial.” And, more crucially, ALEC taught Pruitt that any attempts to regulate the emission of greenhouse gasses might create “great economic dislocation.”

Pruitt used his ALEC training manuals to spot infiltrators and saboteurs, none more dangerous to the cause of peace than suburban homeowners who secretly affixed solar panels to their roofs and then nefariously tried to sell their energy back to the grid. These unassuming citizens, Pruitt learned, were really dangerous “freeriders” and “redistributionists” whose seemingly innocuous actions imperiled the future of Coal. They should be hunted down, punished and fined before the contagion spread.

By 2014, Scott Pruitt had been fully trained and was ready for action on the frontlines. Even though he ran unopposed for reelection as Attorney General, his campaign, co-chaired by Harold Hamm, raked in more than $300,000 from the anti-war movement across the country. And the money came not just from the embattled coal region, but also from its fossil fuel allies, the frackers and oil drillers, who feared they might fall next. Even non-aligned industries, such as nuclear power, often a rival to coal, pitched in for the struggle. Pruitt summed up his version of the Coal War Domino Theory this way: “I think that the progression from coal to natural gas is rather small. I think the attitude with the EPA is that fossil fuels are bad — period. And they’re doing everything they can to use the rule-making process to attack both.”

As the Ramsey Clark of the anti-Coal War Movement, Pruitt tried to peacefully end the hostilities against coal through a string of lawsuits. Pruitt sued to stop the cross-state pollution rule, rules limiting mercury emissions and air toxins, regulations on regional haze, and, of course, Obama’s Clean Power Plan, known in Coal Country as the Final Solution. In little more than three years, Pruitt filed 13 lawsuits against the agency he now leads. Pruitt even sued the EPA over Oklahoma being battered by frivolous litigation filed by environmental groups. He lost them all. But, like a good anti-war activist, he wasn’t chastened by defeat. “You know, this is coerced conservation, in effect,” Pruitt said. “This is the administration saying ‘we’re going to penalize fossil fuels. We’re going to emphasize renewables, cause energy costs to skyrocket.’

Pruitt also proved himself a crafty organizer with a Yippie-like facility for anti-war pranksterism. During his term as Attorney General, Pruitt bombarded the EPA, Interior Department, and Office of Management and Budget with dozens of letters on state stationary decrying the barbarous War on Coal. But the recipients had no idea that the letters were actually written by executives and lobbyists from the besieged fossil fuel industry itself.

Pruitt, by this time a seasoned activist, brushed off the criticism of his plagiarized missives with the exuberant delinquency of Jerry Rubin. “Those kinds of questions arise from the environment we are in — a very dysfunctional, distrustful political environment,” Pruitt courageously told the New York Times. “I can say to you that is not who we are or have ever been, and despite those criticisms we sit around and make decisions about what is right, and what represents adherence to the rule of law, and we seek to advance that and try to do the best we can to educate people about our viewpoint.”

This is, of course, the kind of gallantry under fire which caught Trump’s attention. Pruitt had the kind of guts that it would take to finally bring to an end the noxious war on coal.

The retreat began soon after Pruitt’s confirmation. Pruitt immediately announced the fake science policies behind the war would be rescinded. War propaganda on the EPA website was struck down. Pruitt himself proclaimed that carbon dioxide had been wrongly implicated as an culprit of climate disruption, declaring that it is not “a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

A man of his word, Pruitt swiftly pledged to slash the EPA’s war budget by 24 percent and to furlough more than 24 percent of the agency’s foot-soldiers. Pruitt then drafted an Executive Order for Trump to revoke Obama’s authoritarian Clean Power Plan, which Trump duly signed on March 28, 2017. In another move to demilitarize the EPA, Pruitt informed the Justice Department that the agency would no longer pay the legal costs of any lawsuits aimed at inflicting undue hardship and pain on polluters at Superfund sites.

After huddling with other anti-war activists at the Trump hotel in Washington, Pruitt took decisive action to quash the hawks within his own agency. In late April, Pruitt terminated the tenures of members of the EPA’s pro-war Board of Scientific Counselors and pledged to replace the blood-thirsty scientists with dovish representatives from the oil and coal block.

By early summer, coal had advanced on all fronts, until it had Washington nearly encircled. At this point, Pruitt embarked on a desperate gambit of shuttle diplomacy to bring hostilities to a final close.  These stealthy flights, many of them on military and private jets at US government expense, enabled Pruitt to receive a kind of checklist from the ambassadors of coal to assure a cessation of conflict across all fronts: pull out of the Paris Accords, block new fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, suspend rules mandating higher efficiency standards for household appliances, gut regulations capping methane emissions from oil and gas wells, etc. In all, Pruitt crushed 52 environmental rules that were savaging non-violent industries.

Rarely has Washington witnessed a vocal pacifist accumulate so much power so quickly and prevail in so many victories against an entrenched war machine. Of course, all high-profile peace activists sooner or later become targets themselves and Scott Pruitt was no exception. Sensing his vulnerability to enraged eco-terrorists and other pro-war fanatics, Pruitt reluctantly, but prudently, surrounded himself an 18-person security detail to guard him 24-hours a day. His bodyguards were culled from the elite Criminal Division of the EPA, where they had otherwise been wasting taxpayer dollars harassing corporations for bogus environmental crimes.

Scott Pruitt is one of the few anti-war activists to understand how the tax code itself provides the fuel that drives the war machine. So, even though an armistice was declared ending the War on Coal on October 10, 2017, Pruitt later warned that for the new peace treaty to prosper any lingering militaristic incentives must be eliminated. Pruitt specifically targeted for deletion dangerous provisions that provide tax breaks for wind, geothermal and solar power, so that the US doesn’t risk falling prey to the same kind of guerrilla insurgency that swept South Australia, where 48% of the region’s electrical power is now generated by rooftop solar panels.

The War on Coal is, of course, unlike most other wars. Now that it is over, the killing will begin. So, sit back and watch the body count rise.

A Matter of Life or Death

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Talking About Redemption and Leaving Things Behind

Sound Grammar

What I’m listening to this week….

Bad Hombre by Antonio Sanchez

American Troubadour: The Songs of Steve Fourbert by Various Artists

The Adventures of Zodd Zundgren by the Ed Palermo Big Band

Seekers and Finders by Gogol Bordello

The Interpretation of Dreams by John Zorn

Booked Up

What I’m reading this week…

On the Abolition of All Political Parties by Simone Weil

Dislocating the Orient: British Maps and the Making of the Middle East, 1854-1921 by Daniel Foliard

Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher by Edward J. Watts

The Captive Mind

Simone Weil: “If a captive mind is unaware of being in prison, it is living in error. If it has recognized the fact, even for the tenth of a second, and then quickly forgotten it in order to avoid suffering, it is living in falsehood. Men of the most brilliant intelligence can be born, live and die in error and falsehood. In them, intelligence is neither a good, nor even an asset. The difference between more or less intelligent men is like the difference between criminals condemned to life imprisonment in smaller or larger cells.  The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like a condemned man who is proud of his large cell.”

More articles by:

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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