Science Policy & Funding News

Trump EPA Pick Scott Pruitt Faces Heated Confirmation Hearing

Republicans tout Oklahoma Attorney General Pruitt as someone who will rein in regulatory overreach, whereas Democrats question his commitment to protecting the environment and public health.

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Scott Pruitt, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), denied that climate change is a hoax during a heated confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works yesterday. He also stated that the agency plays an important role in regulating carbon dioxide.

At the hearing, Pruitt distanced himself from a widely quoted Tweet that Trump issued in 2012 that claimed that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. However, the EPA nominee said the degree to which human activity causes climate change is subject to debate.

“Science tells us that the climate is changing and that human activity in some manner impacts that change,” said Pruitt. “The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialog, and well it should be.” Pruitt, who is Oklahoma’s attorney general, has sued EPA over Obama administration initiatives such as the Clean Power Plan, which aims to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Republicans on the committee have indicated they consider Pruitt an antidote to what they charge are regulatory overreach and undue financial burdens imposed by the Obama administration.

Concern Among Democrats

Pruitt’s statements about climate change and other issues such as fracking and state’s rights in regulating pollution and his refusal to proactively recuse himself—rather than wait for guidance from EPA’s ethics office—from cases he is currently involved with as attorney general worry Democrats. They fear that the person slated to be the next EPA administrator could dismantle environmental regulations or defang the agency.

Protesters outside Dirksen Senate Office Building.
Protesters held a rally outside of the Dirksen Senate Office Building yesterday, prior to the confirmation hearing for Scott Pruitt to be the next administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Credit: 350.org

“I’ll tell you why we are so concerned,” said the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), after several protesters briefly interrupted the hearing. “You’ll have to go back to March 3, up in Detroit, Michigan, where president-elect, then candidate Donald Trump said these words [about EPA], ‘We’re going to get rid of it in almost every form. We’re going to have little tidbits left, but we are going to take a tremendous amount out.’”

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) charged that Pruitt has “made a career working on behalf of the fossil fuel industry to eviscerate regulations designed to protect public health and the environment.” He noted that Pruitt has been involved in numerous lawsuits against the agency about hazards, including smog and mercury and carbon pollution.

Others picked up this theme. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) questioned whether Pruitt has taken any enforcement actions about fracking, which is implicated in an outburst of earthquakes in Oklahoma. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) drilled Pruitt about his opposition to the agency’s 2015 effort to strengthen the national ambient air quality standards for ground level ozone. “To me, this is a character issue, valuing profit over peoples’ health,” Merkley said.

Pruitt has received low grades from some environmental groups. Following the hearing, Sarah Saylor, senior legislative representative with Earthjustice, a San Francisco–based environmental law organization, told Eos, “It’s not clear in my view that Pruitt really respects or would take the role of administrator of EPA to be as protective of public health as it historically has been or has been intended to be.”

Pro-Energy and Pro-Environment Claim

Pruitt, in his testimony said he rejects as a false paradigm that if you are pro-energy it means you are antienvironment and vice versa. He said that it’s possible to grow the economy and harvest resources while also maintaining good environmental stewardship, a balance that the Obama administration also has emphasized.

Pruitt also said that EPA needs to respect and apply cooperative federalism, with states and the EPA sharing the responsibility for some environmental regulations. “If we truly want to advance and achieve cleaner air and water, the States must be partners and not mere passive instruments of federal will. If confirmed, I will utilize the relationships I have forged with my counterparts in the States to ensure that EPA returns to its proper role, rather than using a heavy hand to coerce the States into effectuating EPA policies,” he noted in his written testimony.

However, some senators, including Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), expressed alarm that cooperative federalism could make it difficult to deal with issues such as cross-state pollution.

Setting EPA in a New Direction

Republicans welcomed Pruitt as the right person to lead the agency in a new direction. Committee chair Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wy.) decried what he called “failed environmental leadership” and “regulatory zeal” of the Obama administration. “During the last 8 years, EPA administrators created broad and legally questionable new regulations which have undermined the American people’s faith in the agency. These regulations have done great damage to the livelihoods of our nation’s hardest-working citizens.”

“The EPA needs a serious course correction,” charged Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), saying that “there is a lot of anger, even fear of this agency” throughout many parts of the country.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), whose state lost 60,000 coal jobs from 2011 to 2016, claimed that regulatory overreach by the agency has devastated the region’s coal industry. “We are in a desperate situation in our state right now because of this,” she said. “For the past 8 years, the EPA has given no indication at all that it cares about the economic impacts of its policies.”

Next Steps

Pruitt’s hearing has ended. If the Senate follows its usual procedure, a majority of the committee can vote to report the nominee to the full body. Then, the Senate can confirm Pruitt by a simple majority vote following any Senate debate.

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2017), Trump EPA pick Scott Pruitt faces heated confirmation hearing, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO066639. Published on 19 January 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0