Scott Pruitt, who repeatedly has sued the Environmental Protection Agency during his tenure as Oklahoma attorney general, declined to say Wednesday whether he would recuse himself from those ongoing cases if confirmed as the agency’s new leader.
Questioned by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) on whether he would avoid involvement in eight ongoing cases against the EPA that he had been a party to while in Oklahoma, Pruitt said he would rely on the advice of agency ethics lawyers on a case-by-case basis.
“If directed to do so, I will do so,” he said, to the dismay of Markey and fellow Democrats.
“If you don’t agree to recuse yourself, then you become plaintiff, defendant, judge and jury on the cases you are bringing right now as attorney general of Oklahoma against the EPA,” Markey said.
The exchange was just one of several tense moments Pruitt encountered Wednesday about his fitness to run the agency given his litigious history, his close ties to the oil and gas industry, his views on climate change and even the water crisis in Flint, Mich.
Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee grilled the 48-year-old former state lawmaker about his financial support the fossil fuel industry, which has given Pruitt hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) unfurled a chart showing companies that had funded Pruitt and political action committees associated with him over the years — a group that included ExxonMobil, Koch Industries and other energy firms.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) displayed a 2011 letter Pruitt sent to the EPA saying it had overestimated air pollution from natural gas drilling — a letter largely written by lawyers for Devon Energy, one of Oklahoma’s largest oil and gas companies. He accused Pruitt of acting as “a direct extension of an oil company rather than a direct extension of the interest of public health of the people of Oklahoma.”
Pruitt countered that he was not representing any one company, but rather expressing the concerns of an entire industry in the state.
In his opening statement Wednesday, Pruitt also sought to head off critics who call him a “climate denier” by acknowledging that “science tells us that the climate is changing.” But he added that precisely how much humans are contributing to the problem and what policy actions to take remain open “to debate and dialogue.”
It was a debate Sen. Bernie Sanders ( I-Vt.) embraced, challenging Pruitt about his lack of urgency regarding climate change and on the role of the oil and gas industry in causing widespread earthquakes in the state of Oklahoma.
“Why is the climate changing?” Sanders asked, requesting Pruitt’s “personal opinion” about the matter.
“My personal opinion is immaterial,” Pruitt replied.
“Really?” Sanders countered. “You are going to be the head of the agency to protect the environment, and your personal feelings about whether climate change is caused by human activity is immaterial?”
Sanders noted that the vast majority of scientists say human activity plays a significant role in speeding the warming of the planet and that there’s a need to “transform our energy system.”
Pruitt acknowledged that the EPA administrator “has a very important role to perform in regulating CO2” — an intriguing statement from a man who has led the charge against the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s main effort to cut carbon emissions.
Referring to the water crisis in Flint, Mich., where thousands of young children have been exposed to elevated levels of lead, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) asked what an acceptable level of lead consumption would be for children.
“That’s something I have not reviewed nor know about. I would be concerned about any level of lead going into the drinking water, or obviously human consumption,” Pruitt said.” “But I have not looked at the scientific research.”
Public health officials have long said there is no safe level of lead, and that exposure can impair learning and cause other physical and emotional problems, especially in children.
Pruitt told lawmakers on Wednesday that, if confirmed, he plans to steer the agency away from what he sees as an era of overzealous and unlawful regulation during the Obama years. He said his EPA would be one that respects the authority of states and is open to a “full range of views.”
Pruitt, who has long been supported by the fossil fuel industry, dismissed the idea that if someone supports the oil and gas interests, he can’t also favor environmental protection.
“I utterly reject that narrative,” he said. “It is not an either-or proposition.”
Pruitt’s tenure as attorney general in Oklahoma has been marked by his role in opposing many of the Obama administration’s key initiatives, often arguing that the executive branch was overstepping its constitutional authority and trying to circumvent the role of Congress.
He has been a leading voice among a group of Republican attorneys general who sued over issues including the Affordable Care Act, Wall Street reforms and immigration. But he has been particularly aggressive in attacking the EPA’s efforts, repeatedly suing the agency to challenge its legal authority to regulate toxic mercury pollution, smog, carbon emissions from power plants, and the quality of wetlands and other waters.
That combative approach has earned him broad support from fellow Republicans and from the fossil fuel industry, which helped fund his campaigns and contributed large sums to the Republican Attorneys General Association under Pruitt’s leadership.
On Wednesday, he also received broad support from Republicans in the Senate, who are expected to approve his nomination. The committee’s chairman, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), said Pruitt would help to quell the “regulatory zeal” of the past eight years. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), argued that the EPA needs a “serious course correction,”
“There is a lot of anger and fear of this agency throughout many parts of the country,” he told Pruitt, “and I believe you are the right person to provide that course correction.”
Yet his nomination has galvanized environmental advocacy groups, who note that Pruitt dismantled a specialized environmental protection unit that had existed under his predecessor and poured resources into a new “federalism unit” aimed at challenging “unwarranted regulation and systematic overreach” from Washington.
They argue that his close ties to the oil and gas industry and his hostile history with the EPA make him a disastrous choice to run an agency created to protect ordinary Americans from pollution. They have called him a climate change denier who lacks the sense of urgency necessary to tackle the problems caused by global warming.
“He’s the worst nominee anyone has tapped to run the EPA in the agency’s 46-year history,” Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said this week in announcing a letter from more than 170 environmental and public-health groups that oppose his confirmation. “He’s made a career out of suing the EPA to try to block it from doing its job as the guardian of our environment and health.”
Even as Pruitt spoke, scientists were declaring 2016 the hottest year on record, making it the third year in a row to earn that title.
The small hearing room had just a few seats open for the public on Wednesday, frustrating a large group of protesters who’d shown up for the scene. Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin, a frequent presence at hearings, was kept out, along with Native American protesters who shouted when the room’s doors were closed to guests.
Protesters dressed as a BP technician and an oil-stained bird did make it inside, grumbling about the security. As Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a well-known climate skeptic, began to speak, they interrupted the hearing — “I can frack this place!” said the protester in BP get-up, carrying a fake can of oil. “We don’t want the EPA gutted!” — and were hauled out by security.
For his part, Pruitt has repeatedly framed his EPA opposition as driven not by ideology but by constitutional questions over the separation of powers.
“There truly is an attitude in Washington that the states are mere vessels of federal will, and so long as they act in accordance with the federal government’s view . . . things are fine,” he said in a speech in July. “But when states actually engage and exercise the authority they possess, that’s where the conflict and the tension rises.”
Pruitt has powerful forces pushing for the GOP-controlled Senate to confirm him.
The conservative America Rising Squared, an arm of the Republican super PAC America Rising, recently launched ConfirmPruitt.com to promote him as someone who can return the EPA to its “core mission” of protecting the nation’s water and air but leaving broader authority in the hands of the states and industry.
Last week, a coalition of nearly two dozen conservative advocacy groups separately backed his nomination, writing that he has “demonstrated his commitment to upholding the Constitution and ensuring the EPA works for American families and consumers.”
Pruitt’s personal finances pale in comparison with some other Trump cabinet nominees, who include the likes of billionaire investor Wilbur Ross. In ethics disclosures, Pruitt listed an investment portfolio valued between $420,000 and $1 million, with debt between $500,000 and $1 million involving a mortgage on his home.
Chris Mooney contributed to this report.