By Rich Heidorn Jr. and Michael Brooks
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s nominee to head EPA attempted to assuage skeptical Democrats on Wednesday, insisting he will enforce environmental rules and seeks only to ensure predictable regulation that respects states’ jurisdiction.
“People of this country are hungry for change,” Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee during his six-hour confirmation hearing. He said he would seek to end a “false paradigm that if you’re pro-energy you’re against the environment.”
But the panel’s Democrats were critical of the nominee, accusing him of being too cozy with fossil fuel producers. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he would oppose Pruitt’s confirmation as EPA administrator and most of the others appeared likely to join him.
Pruitt needs a simple majority to clear the committee — which Republicans control 11-10 — and the full Senate, where the GOP holds a 52-48 edge (including two Independents who caucus with the Democrats).
The Democrats cited 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 (CSAPR), the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, regional haze rule and emission regulations on new power plants.
Ranking member Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) quoted former Republican EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman, who has said Pruitt is “disdainful of the agency and the science behind what the agency does.”
Pruitt’s Republican supporters said he would address the agency’s “overreach.” Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) followed up each round of questions by Democrats by quoting Oklahoma environmental officials and news editorials endorsing Pruitt’s appointment.
Pruitt opponents lined up outside the hearing room, some wearing surgical masks with “Stop Pruitt” stickers. A few opponents got into the room and briefly interrupted the hearing on two occasions. Helmet-wearing coal miners also attended the hearing in support.
Climate Change not a ‘Hoax’
As Trump’s Interior Department nominee had done in his confirmation hearing Tuesday, Pruitt said he did not agree with the president-elect’s claim that climate change is a “hoax” by the Chinese. (See Zinke: Climate Change Real, but Coal, Gas Should Continue.)
Pruitt, who has led a legal fight by states against EPA’s Clean Power Plan, said climate change is real but that the impact of human activities and how to fix it are subject of “continued debate and dialog.”
“I do not believe climate change is a hoax,” he said under questioning by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
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.
But he clearly did not share Democratic senators’ sense of urgency over climate change, repeatedly calling it “the CO2 issue” and declining to rank its priority against other areas under the agency’s oversight. “The EPA deals with very weighty issues … water and air quality. It’s a matter of prioritizing resources to achieve better outcomes in each.”
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.”
Pruitt also defended his lawsuits against EPA as efforts to ensure the agency implements its policies in accordance with law. His challenge to the CSAPR rule, he said, was not to the agency’s authority but to its implementation of penalties in excess of states’ “allocated share” of emissions.
“They [EPA] need to follow the processes set up by Congress,” he said, arguing that the agency has created uncertainty among those to which its rules apply.
“There are many laws that people look at and say, ‘Well I don’t really like that,’ but so long as they know what’s expected of them, they can plan and allocate resources to comply.”
Republicans joined Pruitt in his critique. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said the CPP would “put us out of business” because his state has little alternative to coal-fired power.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments on the challenges to the CPP in September, has yet to issue a ruling. Regardless of the outcome, an appeal to the Supreme Court is likely. (See Analysis: No Knock Out Blow for Clean Power Plan Foes in Court Arguments.)
Markey called on Pruitt to recuse himself as EPA administrator from any lawsuits he filed as attorney general, including against the Clean Power Plan. Otherwise, he said, Pruitt would be “plaintiff, defendant, judge and jury.”
Pruitt said he would consult with EPA’s ethics counsel on a case-by-case basis on recusals.
Sanders took on Pruitt’s contention that there remains doubt about the cause of climate change and the conclusion that fossil fuel use must be reduced to address it.
Sanders also asked Pruitt what actions he had taken as attorney general to address the spike in earthquakes in his state, which has been linked to underground injection of fracking wastewater. Pruitt said fracking is regulated by the state Corporation Commission and acknowledged he had not filed any enforcement cases over the practice. “If that’s the kind of EPA administrator you’re going to be, you’re not going to get my vote,” Sanders responded.
Later, in response to a question from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) about the issue, Pruitt defended his state’s response to the earthquakes. He noted the commission had declared certain areas of the state off-limits to fracking, calling its actions “aggressive” and that they’ve helped reduce the number of quakes.
Doing Industry’s Bidding?
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) pressed Pruitt on a 2014 article in The New York Times that reported Pruitt sent letters to EPA and other federal officials — on state government stationary and signed by him — that had been authored by oil and gas companies. One 2011 letter he sent to EPA that accused federal regulators of overestimating the air pollution caused by natural gas drillers in Oklahoma, for example, was almost entirely written by Devon Energy, one of his state’s biggest gas producers. “You used your office as a direct extension of an oil company,” Merkley said.
Pruitt insisted the letter was “representing the interests of the people of Oklahoma.” He noted that the oil and gas industry is responsible for one-quarter of the state’s budget.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said Pruitt’s version of federalism — which the nominee described as “national standards, neighborhood solutions” — would leave his state powerless to combat ozone pollution from other states. “Because those smokestacks are out of state, we need EPA to help us,” he said.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) pointedly asked Pruitt whether he knew how many Oklahoman children had asthma, which is linked to air pollution. Pruitt acknowledged he did not. Booker said the American Lung Association puts the total at 110,000 — more than 10% of the state’s children — which he said was one of the highest rates in the U.S.