Democrats probed EPA nominee Scott Pruitt on Wednesday over his stance on climate change and whether the Oklahoma attorney general favored his state’s oil and gas industry over public health.
Pruitt — who has sued the Obama EPA over its carbon emission rules on power plants — sought to reassure Democrats that he believes the climate is changing and that human activity is a factor in it. But he said the extent of human impact on the planet’s temperature is up for debate.
Several Democrats also probed Pruitt’s ties to the energy industry, which contributed money to PACs linked to him as well as the a group of Republican attorneys general that he has lead.
President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to pick Pruitt to run the agency has been hailed by conservatives, who have long complained that the Obama EPA has vastly overreached with its air and water regulations, implementing rules conservatives say only Congress has the authority to make.
Here are highlights of the hearing in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee:
Pruitt: My opinion on climate change is ‘immaterial'
An exchange on climate change between Pruitt and Sen. Bernie Sanders drew scoffs from the Vermont independent.
“The climate’s changing and human activity contributes to that in some manner,” but the degree of that contribution is “subject to more debate,” Pruitt said in response to questioning from Sanders, Pruitt also acknowledged that climate change is not a hoax, as President-elect Donald Trump has contended, and he said the EPA administrator’s job is to carry out the law as set by Congress.
But Sanders interrupted to ask his personal opinion of the science.
“My personal opinion is immaterial,” Pruitt said.
“Really?” Sanders replied. “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 and carbon emissions is immaterial?”
“I believe that the administrator has a very important role to perform in regulating CO2,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt defends sending oil company-authored letter
Pruitt today told senators that he sent a 2011 letter about oil and gas industry emissions of methane — the key component of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas — on behalf of his state, not for Devon Energy, the Oklahoma company that largely wrote the letter.
Democrats have seized on Pruitt’s decision to send the Devon-authored letter, first reported in 2014 by The New York Times, as a sign of Pruitt’s allegiance to the fossil-fuel industry over public health needs. Pruitt insisted under questioning from Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), however, that his adoption of Devon’s argument was “not sent on behalf of any one company,” but on behalf of the entire “oil and gas industry that is vibrant to our state.”
EPA’s methods of estimating methane emissions from oil and gas wells “was a concern expressed by that industry,” Pruitt said. “It was the position of the state, not the position of any one company.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) followed that exchange by challenging Pruitt to specify the number of Oklahoma children suffering from asthma, which Donald Trump’s EPA pick could not do. Booker put the figure at more than 100,000.
“How many letters did you write to the EPA about this health crisis?” Booker said, referring to the childhood asthma that Democrats and green groups connect with industry pollution. “If this is representative government, did you represent those children?”
Pruitt changes view on Chesapeake clean-up deal
Pruitt said that if approved by the Senate, he would enforce a multi-state Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan arrived by the Obama EPA with the region’s states, despite having previously sued to block the effort as Oklahoma attorney general.
Pruitt said that he initially had concerns about the precedent that the cleanup plan would set, particularly with respect to the Mississippi River basin, but that “through that litigation the EPA acknowledged their role was more informational.”
“I really want to emphasize to you, that process represents what should occur, for states to join together and reach an agreement to address water quality issues and involve the EPA to serve the role it’s supposed to serve,” Pruitt said at his confirmation hearing today.
The landmark Chesapeake Bay plan sets pollution reduction targets across the 64,000-square-mile watershed and relies on EPA’s powers to pressure states to follow through. Farm groups and developers fiercely opposed the Bay cleanup plan, and challenged it in court, although the Supreme Court declined to take up the case, leaving it in place.
Better record at the ballpark?
Newly elected Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) questioned Pruitt about his record in court on the cases he had filed against the EPA — and Harris, a former California attorney general, used a baseball analogy, asking the nominee about his batting average .
"About .300," the former college baseball player answered, "which is good for a second baseman."
But Harris was unimpressed, saying his record in court against the EPA was far lower: “.142 by my calculation,” she deadpanned, noting that he had lost 6 of the 7 settled cases.
Pruitt today said he believes mercury is a dangerous substance that should be regulated under the Clean Air Act — although he signed on to a major lawsuit against an Obama administration rule that aimed to reduce emissions from power plants.
“There was no argument we made as states that mercury was not a hazardous air pollutant,” Pruitt told lawmakers today. “I agree ... that mercury is something that’s very dangerous to our environment and should be regulated under Section 112” of the Clean Air Act.
Pruitt and various state and industry challengers argued in a 2012 court brief that regulating mercury emissions from power plants under the Clean Air Act “is authorized only if EPA were to determine that” power plant emissions alone risk “serious adverse effects to the public health.”
Barrasso: EPA's ‘failed leadership’
Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) opened the hearing by criticizing the agency's “failed environmental leadership” under President Barack Obama, which he argues contributed to two environmental disasters — the Flint, Michigan, lead-contamination water crisis and the Gold King mine spill in Colorado.
“Those disasters hurt people, many from low-income and minority communities who can least afford it,” Barrasso said.
“Clearly a change is needed,” he added. “Any new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency needs to protect the environment in a responsible way that doesn’t ignore the good work that states do to protect their air, land and water, as well as their economies.”
Pruitt promises to curb EPA role
Pruitt addressed conservatives’ complaints about the EPA, promising lawmakers that under his leadership, the agency would stop “picking winners and losers,” according to prepared remarks.
He also accused the agency of overstepping its power, saying it had "bootstrapped its own powers and tools through rulemaking" that had triggered protracted litigation and that he would rely on the states rather than federal officials to be "our nation’s front-line environmental implementers and enforcers."
Farmers, ranchers and small business owners have felt “hopeless, subject to a never ending torrent of new regulations that only a lawyer can understand,” Pruitt's remarks said. “They fear the EPA, and that just shouldn’t be the case. If confirmed, I will work tirelessly to ensure that the EPA acts lawfully, sensibly, and with those hardworking Americans ever in mind.”
Carper: Pruitt's views are troubling
Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the committee, indicated he is leaning against approving Pruitt, marking the second time the Delawarean has opposed a nominee for EPA administrator.
“Too much of what I’ve seen of his record on the environment and his views about the role of the EPA are troubling and, in some cases, deeply troubling,” Carper said. In 2005, Carper voted against George W. Bush’s nominee for his third EPA administrator, Stephen Johnson. Carper said at the time that he opposed Johnson because the Bush administration was allegedly blocking studies of power plant pollution, according to The New York Times.