By Rich Heidorn Jr.
WASHINGTON — EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will address agency workers Tuesday in a bid to convince them he is not their enemy, despite having repeatedly sued the agency as Oklahoma attorney general.
Pruitt was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Friday after the Senate voted 52-46 to confirm him. He was supported by all Republicans except Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. Every Democratic senator except two — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, both from coal-producing states — opposed him.
The vote came after Democrats argued on the Senate floor overnight Thursday in opposition, saying action should be delayed until Oklahoma officials release emails detailing Pruitt’s communications with oil and gas companies during his tenure as attorney general.
Democrats criticized Pruitt’s campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry and his 14 lawsuits against EPA as attorney general, including challenges to the agency’s Clean Power Plan, Cross State Air Pollution Rule, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, regional haze rule and emission regulations on new power plants.
At his confirmation hearing in January, Pruitt said he will seek only to ensure predictable regulation that respects states’ jurisdiction. He said he would seek to end a “false paradigm that if you’re pro-energy, you’re against the environment.” (See Dems Unmoved by EPA Pick’s Charm Offensive.)
Pruitt rejected calls that he recuse himself as EPA administrator from any lawsuits he filed as attorney general, saying said he would consult with EPA’s ethics counsel on a case-by-case basis.
He defended letters he sent to EPA and other federal officials — on state government stationary and signed by him — that had been authored by oil and gas companies. He insisted he was “representing the interests of the people of Oklahoma,” noting that the oil and gas industry is responsible for one-quarter of the state’s budget.
Last week, an Oklahoma judge ordered Pruitt to release thousands of emails related to his communication with the oil, gas and coal industries. The judge ruled in favor of the Center for Media and Democracy, which has been seeking the correspondence under public records laws for more than two years.
Hostile Work Environment?
Pruitt’s plans for the agency are certain to be met with skepticism, if not hostility, by many in the EPA bureaucracy.
Last Monday, about 300 people, including dozens of EPA employees, held a lunch hour rally outside the agency’s Chicago regional headquarters in opposition to Pruitt’s appointment.
In addition, more than 400 former EPA officials signed a letter to Congress opposing Pruitt’s confirmation.
“Our perspective is not partisan. Having served under both Republican and Democratic presidents, we recognize each new administration’s right to pursue different policies within the parameters of existing law and to ask Congress to change the laws that protect public health and the environment as it sees fit,” they wrote. “However, every EPA administrator has a fundamental obligation to act in the public’s interest based on current law and the best available science. Mr. Pruitt’s record raises serious questions about whose interests he has served to date and whether he agrees with the longstanding tenets of U.S. environmental law.”
As attorney general, they said, Pruitt had “shown no interest in enforcing environmental laws,” noting that while he issued more than 50 press releases celebrating lawsuits to overturn EPA rules, he issued none referring “to any action he has taken to enforce environmental laws or to actually reduce pollution.”
“We are most concerned about Mr. Pruitt’s reluctance to accept and act on the strong scientific consensus on climate change,” they added.
What’s Next for CPP?
Inside EPA reported last week that President Trump is planning to attend a swearing-in ceremony for Pruitt at agency headquarters, where the president will sign executive orders.
The Washington Post reported Monday that one executive order will direct EPA to rewrite the Clean Power Plan and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to eliminate a moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands.
A second order will direct EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to rewrite the 2015 Waters of the United States rule, which gives the federal government authority over wetlands, rivers and streams that feed into major water bodies. Trump signed legislation last week undoing the Stream Protection Rule finalized by the Office of Surface Mining in December, which prohibited coal mines from dumping waste in waterways.
Pruitt, who led a legal fight by states against the Clean Power Plan, told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that climate change is real but that the impact of human activities and how to fix it are the subject of “continued debate and dialogue.”
Pruitt acknowledged the Supreme Court’s finding in Massachusetts v. EPA that carbon dioxide was a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. “I think the court has spoken very emphatically about this issue, and the EPA has a legal obligation to respond,” he said.
He said he challenged the CPP because the agency created emission limits that coal-fired generators can’t meet — thus requiring a switch to other generation sources and exceeding its authority to regulate “inside the fence line.”
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments on the challenges to the CPP in September, has yet to issue a ruling. If the rule is ultimately upheld — an appeal to the Supreme Court is likely — it will not be a simple matter to undo. (See Analysis: No Knock Out Blow for Clean Power Plan Foes in Court Arguments.)
“Decades of law, much of it created by conservatives’ judicial heroes, requires presidents and agencies to abide by the rule of law and justify regulatory reversals. They have to take a hard look at science and other underlying facts,” Georgetown University Law professor William W. Buzbee wrote in December.