Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, President-elect Trump’s choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), took part in a contentious hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on January 18. The hearing largely focused on Pruitt’s deep ties to polluting energy companies and track record of opposing the EPA’s clean air and water safeguards. Here are eight key moments from the hearing that are worthy of media attention.
1. Pruitt doubled down on climate science denial, despite affirming that climate change is not a “hoax.”
Coming into the hearing, Pruitt was on the record as a climate science denier who has refused to accept the consensus among climate scientists and the world’s leading scientific institutions that human activities such as burning fossil fuels are the main cause of global warming. Pruitt was given multiple opportunities during the hearing to clarify his views on climate science -- and he responded by doubling down on his climate science denial.
In his opening remarks, Pruitt stated: “Science tells us that the climate is changing, and that human activity in some manner impacts that change. 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 dialogue, and well it should be.”
Later in the hearing, Pruitt admitted that he does not believe climate change is a “hoax,” as Trump has claimed, but that doesn’t mean that he suddenly made an about-face and aligned his view with that of the world’s leading climate scientists. In response to a question from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who cited the 97 percent of climate scientists who say global warming is caused by human activities, Pruitt again asserted that “the ability to measure with precision the degree of human activity’s impact on the climate is subject to more debate on whether the climate is changing or whether human activity contributes to it.”
Finally, in response to further questioning from Sanders, Pruitt made the astounding proclamation that his personal opinion on the subject is “immaterial” to serving as the EPA administrator.
2. Pruitt misled about the basis of his opposition to EPA safeguards against dangerous mercury pollution from power plants.
Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin, and mercury pollution, which largely comes from coal- and oil-fired power plants, is particularly dangerous for children and expecting mothers. In 2011, the Obama administration issued the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards to cut mercury pollution by requiring power plants to install proven and widely available pollution control technology. Pruitt responded by issuing a series of lawsuits to block the EPA’s mercury safeguards, including one lawsuit that is ongoing.
During the hearing, Pruitt defended his lawsuits against the EPA’s mercury standards, despite acknowledging that mercury should be regulated by the EPA. At one point, following pointed questions by Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), Pruitt claimed that “there was no argument that we made from a state perspective that mercury is not a hazardous pollutant under Section 112 [of the Clean Air Act]. Our argument focused upon the cost-benefit analysis that the EPA failed to do.” In fact, Pruitt’s 2012 lawsuit against the EPA’s mercury standards did cite Section 112 and asserted that “the record does not support EPA’s findings that mercury … pose[s] public health hazards,” as Environmental Defense Fund’s Jeremy Symons pointed out.
Moreover, Pruitt’s ongoing lawsuit against the EPA is based on a “rigged” cost-benefit analysis that “considers all of [the regulations’] costs, but only some of their benefits,” as the Union of Concerned Scientists has noted. The lawsuit claims that that EPA’s calculation of the financial benefits of the safeguards cannot include indirect benefits, such as reduced smog and sulfur dioxide, that would also be reduced by the pollution control technology used to cut mercury pollution -- even though the EPA accounted for indirect costs, such as higher electricity prices (in addition to direct costs like the expense of installing pollution controls).
3. Pruitt refused to rule out blocking California’s clean car rules and other state-level pollution limits.
First, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) noted that “the EPA has historically recognized California’s authority to issue new motor vehicle pollution standards that go above and beyond federal standards,” and she asked Pruitt whether he would commit to “recognizing California’s authority to issue its own new motor vehicle air pollution standards.” Pruitt replied that he would “review” the issue but refused to commit to upholding California’s right to set stronger pollution standards.
Later, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) returned to this topic, noting that Pruitt wouldn’t commit to supporting the right of California, Massachusetts, and other states “to do what is best for global warming in their own states,” adding, “When you say ‘review,’ I hear undo.” Markey concluded that Pruitt has a “double standard” in which he says states like Oklahoma that agree with “the oil and gas industry perspective” have “a right to do what they want to do,” while states like California and Massachusetts may not have the right to “increase their protection for the environment” and reduce carbon pollution.
4. Pruitt confirmed that he equates the interests of the oil industry with those of the people of Oklahoma.
In 2014, The New York Times reported that Pruitt sent a letter to the EPA on state government stationery that accused federal regulators of overestimating industry air pollution, and that the letter was secretly almost entirely written by lawyers for Devon Energy, one of the biggest oil and gas companies in Oklahoma. At the time, Pruitt responded to the controversy by declaring, “That’s actually called representative government in my view of the world.” During the hearing, Pruitt again confirmed that he equates representing the people of Oklahoma with representing the oil industry.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) mentioned the letter, asking Pruitt if he would acknowledge that he “presented a private oil company’s position, rather than a position developed by the people of Oklahoma.” Pruitt replied that he “disagree[d]” with Merkley’s conclusion and asserted that the letter was “representing the interests of the state of Oklahoma” because it “was representing the interest of an industry in the state of Oklahoma, not a company.” Pruitt cited the fact that the oil industry is “a very important industry to our state” as justification for equating the industry’s position with that of the state.
5. Pruitt claimed he didn’t solicit fossil fuel contributions for the Republican Attorneys General Association.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) drilled down on Pruitt’s extensive financial ties to fossil fuel companies, including Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Murray Energy, and Devon Energy. At one point, Whitehouse asked Pruitt if he had ever solicited funds from those companies for the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), to which Pruitt answered, “I have not asked them for money on behalf of RAGA.”
While it’s possible Pruitt’s claim is true, a document uncovered by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) shows that RAGA gave call sheets to Republican attorneys general to solicit funds from corporations, as CMD’s Nick Surgey noted. So the exchange is an important area for reporter follow-up, as the Natural Resources Defense Council’s John Walke explained.
6. Pruitt refused to recuse himself from his ongoing litigation against the EPA, setting up an apparent conflict of interest.
Sen. Markey asked Pruitt if he would recuse himself as EPA administrator from the lawsuits that he has brought against the EPA to overturn the agency’s clean air and water safeguards, adding that if Pruitt refused, “people are going to think that it’s not just the fox guarding the henhouse, it’s the fox destroying the henhouse.” Pruitt answered that he would recuse himself only “as directed by EPA ethics counsel.” Markey noted that Pruitt’s continued involvement in those lawsuits would create a “fundamental conflict of interest.”
Later in the hearing, Sen. Harris pressed Pruitt on whether he has “discretion” to recuse himself from the cases, independent of what the ethics counsel says. After initially dodging the question, Pruitt acknowledged, “Clearly there’s a discretion to recuse.”
7. Pruitt inflated his environmental credentials by misrepresenting two poultry industry cases.
In addition to criticizing Pruitt’s efforts to overturn clean air and water protections, opponents of Pruitt’s nomination have pointed out the lack of evidence that he has taken any proactive steps to protect Oklahoma’s environment during his time as attorney general. For example, Eric Schaeffer of the Environmental Integrity Project noted in a New York Times op-ed, “During his six-year tenure, [Pruitt’s] office issued more than 700 news releases announcing enforcement actions, speeches and public appearances, and challenges to federal regulations. My organization could not find any describing actions by Mr. Pruitt to enforce environmental laws or penalize polluters.”
When the question of Pruitt’s environmental credentials arose during the hearing, Pruitt grossly exaggerated his record of holding polluters accountable by misrepresenting two poultry industry cases.
First, noted anti-environment Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) invited Pruitt to explain “why you have become such a hero of the [Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission] people.” Pruitt replied by touting an agreement he reached with the state of Arkansas related to chicken manure pollution, declaring, “I actually reached out to my Democratic colleague Dustin McDaniel, the attorney general of the state of Arkansas, and we were able to negotiate an agreement that had phosphorous levels set at 0.037, scientifically driven and enforced on both sides of the border for the first time in history.”
But Pruitt’s agreement with Arkansas “didn’t take any steps to reduce pollution, but actually only proposes another unnecessary study and attempts to suspend compliance” for another three years of pollution, as Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) explained during the hearing. Indeed, as the Environmental Working Group noted, “Instead of fighting to enforce his state’s own water quality standards for phosphorus, [Pruitt] stalled. Pruitt’s 2013 amendment to the earlier agreement gave poultry polluters three more years to meet the goals established in 2003, plus an opening to weaken the standard by commissioning further study of the problem.”
Later, Sen. Harris asked Pruitt if he could “name a few instances in which you have filed a lawsuit in your independent capacity as attorney general against a corporate entity for violating state or federal pollution laws.” Pruitt responded by citing a lawsuit against the Mahard Egg Farm, which he described as involving “the clean-up of a large hen operation that affected water quality.”
However, parties on both sides of the lawsuit told ThinkProgress that the Mahard case “began years before he took office.” ThinkProgress further noted that while “Pruitt did technically file the case on behalf of Oklahoma, it was both filed and settled on the same day” after years of extensive negotiations that did not involve Pruitt, and it quoted Mahard’s lawyer as saying, “Nothing against AG Pruitt, but it was really a DOJ, EPA-driven process.”
8. Pruitt passed the buck on addressing Oklahoma’s fracking-induced earthquakes.
Citing Oklahoma’s “record-breaking number of earthquakes” that scientists attribute to the process of fracking for oil and gas, Sen. Sanders asked Pruitt if he could cite “any opinion that you wrote, any enforcement actions you took against the companies that were injecting waste-fracking water.” Pruitt replied that he was “very concerned” about the issue, but that “the corporation commission in Oklahoma is vested with the jurisdiction and they’ve actually acted on that.”
However, although the Oklahoma Corporation Commission is responsible for regulating wastewater injection, experts told The Atlantic that “there were a number of legal questions on which Pruitt could have engaged” (emphasis original). Those include issuing a legal opinion on whether the commission could stop wastewater from coming from other states or join Pawnee residents in a class-action lawsuit against oil companies that they say are liable for the earthquakes. The Atlantic added that “while it is true that Pruitt does not regulate oil and gas extraction in Oklahoma, other attorneys general have involved themselves in difficult fracking cases.”
Sanders concluded: “Your state is having a record-breaking number of earthquakes. You’ve acknowledged that you are concerned. If that’s the type of EPA administrator you will be, you’re not going to get my vote.”
Kevin Kalhoefer contributed to this report.