The Senate confirmed Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency Friday, installing one of the agency’s fiercest critics as the nation’s leading environmental regulator just hours after an Oklahoma judge ordered the release of his email conversations with oil, gas and coal groups.
On the eve of his confirmation, the state judge ordered Pruitt’s office release the potentially thousands of emails relating to the energy companies he will soon be regulating — but not until Tuesday, days after his confirmation vote.
Pruitt is among the group of President Donald Trump’s most controversial nominees, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And like those others tapped by Trump, Pruitt’s nomination is likely to narrowly pass in the Senate — with the help of a pair of Democrats.
The controversy around Pruitt’s contacts with oil, natural gas and coal companies has given Democrats a rallying point to call for a delay of his final vote on the Senate floor, but which Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has insisted will take place Friday.
“This is an egregious cover-up that must not stand,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who is planning to ask for another 10 days of debate on Pruitt — a move that’s almost certain to be rejected.
It’s not clear whether Pruitt’s unreleased emails contain any damaging surprises, particularly since his ties to the oil and gas industry are well known. But Democrats — already incensed that Pruitt had told them to go through the public records request process if they wanted his emails or other documents from his time as attorney general — were apoplectic Thursday night when GOP leaders said Pruitt’s vote would take place Friday as scheduled.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) called the Pruitt vote “an epic ram job,” and said Pruitt himself is “the tool and the minion of the fossil fuel industry.”
Given Pruitt’s industry ties, “I don’t see any way his tenure at the Environmental Protection Agency ends well,” Whitehouse said. “Time will tell and facts will [come] out, but I believe our Republican friends will rue the day that they had this nomination rammed through the Senate on the very day that the emails were being litigated in Oklahoma, in order to get ahead of any counterpressure.”
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who led a boycott of Pruitt earlier this month before the Environment and Public Works Committee, warned that Republicans could be tying themselves to a time bomb.
“Sometime — a week from now, maybe days from now — my fear is that a number of members, especially on the other side, will have been put in a very bad position and asked to vote for a nominee that they otherwise may not have supported had they known,” Carper told reporters shortly before the judge ordered the emails released.
Republican leadership, with 52 votes secured to approve Pruitt, including Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, have no plans to change course on confirming him.
“Despite Democrat efforts to delay his confirmation vote, we need to be responsible and move forward to confirm Attorney General Pruitt,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said on the Senate floor shortly before the judge’s order came down. “The longer we postpone this vote, the longer it is going to take for things to get done at the EPA, which will not help anyone.”
Speaking on the floor Friday morning, McConnell said Democrats have engaged in “truly historic, unprecedented and harmful obstruction” over Pruitt and other candidates.
“Democrats’ obstruction has just kept many of our nation’s most critical agencies without a leader for too long — needlessly delaying the president from fully standing up this new administration,” he said.
Whitehouse argued that prior to the election, Republicans “had a fixation with emails,” particularly Hillary Clinton’s, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists’ message on climate change and the Obama administration’s EPA administrators.
“They were desperate for emails. But now, suddenly emails between a nominee’s office and the major players in the industry that he will be regulating as EPA administrator, all they do is look at the ceiling tiles,” he said.
The judge who ordered the emails released, Aletia Haynes Timmons, said the two-year delay in releasing emails sought by the left-leaning watchdog Center for Media and Democracy was an “abject failure to provide prompt and reasonable access to documents” by Pruitt’s office. Pruitt’s lawyers had argued that his office processes requests in the order they are filed, indicating at least a two-year backlog.
She ordered Pruitt’s office turn over up to 2,500 emails that are in dispute in CMD’s oldest request, and said any documents thought to be privileged be brought to her for review by close of business Tuesday.
Timmons also ordered Pruitt’s office to release emails responsive to five more records requests filed by CMD before Pruitt was nominated to run EPA within 10 days.
“The Office of Attorney General remains committed to following the letter and spirit of the Open Records Act,” Pruitt spokesman Lincoln Ferguson said in a statement. “In light of that, we are reviewing all of our options in order to ensure fairness to all requestors rather than elevating the importance of some requests over others.”
Pruitt’s coordination with oil and gas companies is already well known since a 2014 New York Times story that detailed his “secretive alliance” with fossil fuel interests to combat Obama administration rules. Pruitt defended that alliance as in the best interest of Oklahomans who live in one of the biggest oil- and gas-producing states.
He also belonged to groups, including the Republican Attorneys General Association, that received major contributions from energy interests, although Pruitt denied ever soliciting the donations himself.