Breaking News

Scott Pruitt, nominee for EPA Administrator, invokes “federalism” in senate hearing


Scott K. Johnson
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 18: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, President-elect Donald Trump's choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Capitol Hill January 18, 2017 in Washington, DC. Pruitt is expected to face tough questioning about his stance on climate change and ties to the oil and gas industry. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)
Getty Images
In his career as Oklahoma Attorney General, Scott Pruitt led or participated in many lawsuits seeking to block Environmental Protection Agency rules on water pollution, air pollution, and climate change. On Wednesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee questioned Pruitt as they considered him for the position of EPA Administrator.
For the most part, Pruitt seemed comfortable and prepared as senators peppered him with questions for hours. As is generally the case for confirmation hearings, he avoided most specific questions about potential EPA actions, assuring the senators that he would carefully review any decisions before passing judgment. Republican committee members mainly used their turns at the microphone to paint the EPA under the Obama Administration as an oppressive rogue agency, tossing friendly questions at Pruitt that sought to highlight his qualifications. Democratic members, on the other hand, were sharply critical of Pruitt’s history, attempting to paint him as a friend to polluters.
In his comments, Pruitt repeatedly emphasized his intent to ensure that the EPA would respect “the rule of law,” be more deferential to state governments, and make sure “all voices are heard” during the rule-making process. The picture was a greatly restrained EPA meant to contrast with what he perceived as an agency that had overstepped its legal authority, interfered with states, and ignored the economic costs of regulations in favor of environmental and health benefits. Pruitt said he had tried to “stay in my lane” as Attorney General, and he clearly believes the EPA should have a narrow lane.
Answering charges that he didn’t see value in reducing pollution, Pruitt argued that he wasn’t opposed to mercury regulations, for example—he was just opposed to the legal underpinning of the specific mercury regulations he challenged in court. He also expressed the opinion that since many parts of the country aren’t meeting standards for things like ozone, the EPA should be focused on “helping” those areas do so rather than making standards stricter. The EPA is tasked with setting standards based on the best available science on the environmental and health impacts of pollutants.
A significant amount of discussion was dedicated to the recent “waters of the United States” rules, which clarified the long-vague definition of the waterways covered by the Clean Water Act. Congressional Republicans have fought against this clarification because it expanded the regulatory reach of the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. Pruitt criticized the new definition as an overreach that obviously went too far, but he suggested that Congress should clarify the legal definition so the EPA wouldn’t have to.
Democrats took aim both at the priorities of Pruitt’s past and the potential for ethical conflicts. When asked whether he would recuse himself from decisions involving the lawsuits he is currently a plaintiff in, Pruitt said he would rely on the EPA’s ethics counsel, who said he must recuse himself from EPA decisions in response to lawsuits brought within a year previous.
Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse pressed Pruitt on whether fundraising for the Republican Attorneys General Association and a group called the Rule of Law Defense Fund, both organizations on which Pruitt served as chairman in the past, involved soliciting money from fossil fuel companies and other industries with an interest in EPA decisions. Pruitt gave roundabout answers to these inquiries.
Citing examples uncovered by The New York Times in which Pruitt’s office sent letters to the EPA that had actually been drafted by oil and gas companies, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker asked about the number of children with asthma in Oklahoma. “If you’ve been writing letters on behalf of polluting industries, how many letters did you write to the EPA about this health crisis?” Booker asked. “Did you ever let any of them [the children with asthma] write letters on your letterhead to the EPA?”
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders provided the hearing’s most combative exchange when he pushed Pruitt to take a position on the reality of climate change. Pruitt’s initial answers were similar to those given by other Trump nominees: he rejected Trump’s past description of climate change as “a concept invented by and for the Chinese to make US manufacturing non-competitive” as incorrect and said, “The climate is changing and human activity contributes to that in some manner.”
Sanders wasn’t satisfied with this statement, which falls short of designating human activities as the dominant factor, as climate science has shown with high confidence. So Pruitt responded, “I believe the ability to measure with precision the degree of human activity’s impact on the climate is subject to more debate [than] whether the climate is changing or human activity contributes to it.”
After describing his opinion on the cause of climate change as “immaterial,” Pruitt finally replied, “I believe the Administrator has a very important role to perform in regulating CO2.”
Pruitt was later asked to expand on this and clarify whether he would seek to challenge the so-called “endangerment finding” based on a 2007 Supreme Court decision that greenhouse gases qualify as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. “The endangerment finding is there and needs to be respected,” he said, describing it as “the law of the land.” Despite the hours-long hearing, it is still unclear how a Pruitt-led EPA would handle greenhouse gas emissions. As Oklahoma Attorney General, he led lawsuits seeking to block the EPA’s Clean Power Plan for regulating CO2 emissions from power plants, as well as regulations to limit methane leakage from natural gas production.
If Scott Pruitt is confirmed by the Senate, the committee Republicans seemed to feel they would have the EPA under control again.


No comments