Trump’s EPA Pick Softens Positions Amid Democratic Criticisms

  • Climate change ’is not a hoax,’ Scott Pruitt tells Senate
  • EPA now obligated to regulate carbon dioxide, Pruitt says

President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to be the nation’s chief environmental regulator softened his stances on climate change, federal biofuel requirements and the need to curb mercury pollution in a heated Senate confirmation hearing.

Scott Pruitt emphasized the "valuable" role the Environmental Protection Agency plays in protecting air and water, including addressing pollution that crosses state lines, as he fielded scathing questions Wednesday from Democrats concerned the nominee would roll back critical safeguards.

As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt has gone to court to fight more than a dozen actions by the agency he is now tapped to lead, including the EPA’s landmark declaration that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health. He reversed course Wednesday and said that finding should be "enforced and respected."

"We must reject as a nation the false paradigm that if you’re pro-energy, you’re anti-environment, and if you’re pro-environment, you’re anti-energy," Pruitt told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "In this nation, we can grow our economy, harvest the resources God has blessed us with, while also being good stewards of the air, land and water."

Pruitt dialed back his earlier criticisms of climate science and said he supported EPA regulation on power plants for mercury and pollutants that cross state lines. He also vowed to maintain the Renewable Fuel Standard, which is crucial for ethanol producers and farm-state lawmakers. He had criticized or legally challenged each of those regulation in the past.

Harsh Questioning

Based on the harsh questioning, the testimony appeared unlikely to garner him new support from Democrats, but it also didn’t threaten Pruitt’s rock-solid backing from Republicans, who hold a majority in the Senate and can confirm him without Democratic votes. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said he supports Pruitt.

As attorney general Pruitt challenged the Clean Power Plan, which the EPA issued under the Obama administration to address climate change. Wednesday, though, he said the EPA "has a very important role in regulating CO2," because of a Supreme Court ruling that compelled it to analyze if greenhouse gases pose a threat to health and welfare. Now, the agency "has an obligation to address the CO2 issue," Pruitt said. "In doing so, they need to follow processes set up by Congress." Pruitt continued to criticize the Clean Power Plan as violating the law.

Pruitt also sought to dispel questions about his past skepticism of climate change by breaking with Trump’s past characterization of the phenomenon as a hoax.

"I do not believe that climate change is a hoax," Pruitt told the panel. "Science tells us the climate is changing, and human activity in some manner impacts that change. The ability to measure the precision, degree and extent of the impact -- and what to do about that -- are subject to continued debate and dialogue." 

Not Enough

But that was not enough to mollify Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, who said Pruitt’s view clashed with a scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change.

“While you are not certain, the vast majority of scientists are telling us that if we do not get our act together and transform our energy system away from fossil fuel there is a real question as to the quality of the planet we are going to be leaving our children and our grandchildren," he said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Wednesday that 2016 was the hottest year on record. “It is warming because we are not reducing the amounts of greenhouse gases by the amounts we need to,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

If confirmed, Pruitt would be able to formally rewrite or rescind scores of environmental regulations -- or simply ease off on their enforcement. Supporters, including committee chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming, said Pruitt would rein in overzealous Obama-era rules and restore much-needed balance to environmental regulation, making good on Trump’s promise to focus the EPA on its core mission of protecting the air and water.

History of Hostility

But critics say Pruitt’s history of hostility toward the EPA makes him unfit to lead it.

Opponents are using targeted advertising, a barrage of phone calls to Senate offices and even a singing sit-in to try and derail the nomination. Environmental activists lined the halls outside the hearing room Wednesday, with protesters occasionally shouting over proceedings: "Pruitt accepts money from oil companies!" "He’s a conflict of interest!" "Let the public in!" Protesters also rallied outside the building, hoisting signs proclaiming "Stop Pruitt" and "Protect the climate for our grandchildren." Some wore air masks to illustrate the threat they say Pruitt poses to clean air.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, described an urgent threat, with air pollution exacerbating asthma and greenhouse gas emissions leading to more violent storms. "I need you to be vigilant because lives are at stake. I need you to feel it as if your children sitting behind you are in the emergency room." Gillibrand said. "The contaminants are real, they are pervasive and they are destroying lives."

Senate Democrats scrutinized Pruitt’s ties to the oil and gas industry, including donations from the sector to his campaigns and associated political action committees. In 2014, the New York Times reported that after Devon Energy donated to Pruitt, he sent a letter largely drafted by a lawyer for the oil and gas producer to the EPA challenging the analysis underpinning the agency’s move to regulate methane emissions.

Pruitt said that letter captured fears of the oil industry important in his home state. It was "not sent on behalf of any one company," he said. 

‘Very Concerned’

While Pruitt said he objected to the specifics of the mercury rule, he said power plants should be forced to limit that pollution under the Clean Air Act.

Midwest senators exacted a pledge from Pruitt to abide by a law requiring refiners blend biofuel into the nation’s gasoline and diesel supply -- a shift from the nominee’s previous observation that the mandate "is unworkable." Pruitt said he would "honor the intent" of Congress in establishing the biofuel requirements, some of which increase annually through 2022.

"It’s not the job of the administrator of the EPA to do anything other than administer the program according to the intent of Congress, and I commit to you to do so," Pruitt told Senator Deb Fischer, a Republican from Nebraska.

But Pruitt declined to rule out administrative changes to the program, including a bid backed by activist investor and Trump adviser Carl Icahn to push the compliance burden away from refiners to fuel blenders. Because that is under review at the EPA, Pruitt declined to comment on it.

Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, was not satisfied, calling Pruitt’s assertions vague and troubling. "I’m very concerned," she said.

— With assistance by Tom Randall

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