Trump’s EPA Nominee Struggles To Defend Oily Environmental And Ethics Records

President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency came out swinging at his confirmation hearing Wednesday, defending, before facing a single question, his deep ties to oil and gas companies. 

“We must reject as a nation the false paradigm that if you’re pro-energy, you’re anti-environment or if you’re pro-environment, you’re anti-energy,” Scott Pruitt said. “I reject that.”

But he struggled throughout the sixhour hearing to make the case to senators that his confirmation would not, as critics have said, amount to a “fox guarding the henhouse.”

The Oklahoma attorney general insisted that sending the EPA a 2011 letter almost entirely drafted by an oil and gas firm under his letterhead served the interests of the people of his state. He refused to recuse himself from lawsuits he filed as attorney general, sometimes jointly with fossil fuel firms, against the EPA. He described the agency as “dictatorial,” depicting it as the spearhead of federal overreach into states’ rights. He floundered when asked to name a lawsuit he brought against a corporate polluter. He declined to say how much lead is safe to drink and tried to justify his fight against rules on mercury pollution in the air. He acknowledged that climate change is not a hoax, as Trump has repeatedly claimed, but stressed that serious debate persists over the role humans play. He rebuffed a question about the need to wean off carbon-spewing fuels, robotically repeating: “I believe the EPA has a very important role to perform in regulating CO2.”

“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 no real question as to the quality of the planet we are leaving our children and grandchildren,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said, seemingly exasperated by Pruitt’s intransigence on the question. “You are applying for the job of administrator to protect the environment.”

Pruitt wasn’t without his defenders. Republican senators thrice ceded their questioning time to allow Pruitt to respond to aggressive inquiries without the interruption of the Democratic lawmakers who asked them. When Democrats raised concerns about ethical conflicts or environmental science, Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) routinely submitted articles to the official record meant to challenge those issues. Against Democrats’ pleas, Barrasso cut off the hearing after three rounds of questioning. 

Pruitt’s history with Devon Energy, an oil and natural gas producer based in Oklahoma City, became a flashpoint. In 2011, Pruitt sent a letter to the EPA criticizing the agency’s estimates on methane emissions from natural gas drilling sites. The letter, published by The New York Times in 2014 among 84 pages of correspondence, bears Pruitt’s official letterhead as attorney general, but the words came almost verbatim from a memo drafted by Devon’s lawyers. During the hearing, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) attacked Pruitt as an industry “mouthpiece” over the incident.

“You acknowledge that 97 percent of the words came from Devon Energy?” Merkley said.

“I have not looked at the percentage,” Pruitt replied. “Senator, that was a step that was taken as attorney general representing the interest of our state.”

“I’m just asking you if you copied the letter virtually word for word,” Merkley said.

Pruitt demurred. “The efforts I took as attorney general were representing the interest of Oklahoma.”

If that’s the case, Merkley said, what environmental experts did you consult to know you were representing interests beyond Devon’s? “I consulted with other environmental officials in Oklahoma that regulate that industry,” Pruitt said. “We have seven or so individuals in our office that are involved in these issues.” He promised to submit their names to the committee.

Pruitt sued the EPA 13 times as Oklahoma’s attorney general, and some lawsuits are ongoing. Still, he refused to commit to a blanket recusal from those suits, even after Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said failing to do so would make Pruitt “plaintiff, defendant, judge and jury” on issues related to clean air and water.

“I have every willingness and desire to recuse as directed by the EPA ethics counsel,” Pruitt said. “If directed to do so, I will in fact do so.”

In an open letter, the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center rejected Pruitt’s argument, urging him to recuse himself from the estimated 26 suits against the EPA in which he either filed suit or filed briefs.

Smog settled over the Los Angeles skyline in 2006. Stronger state and EPA standards have steadily improved air quality in the city.

“Pruitt made a name for himself by suing the same agency he now seeks to lead, and if confirmed, he will be in a position of defending against — or settling — the same cases he previously initiated and supported,” Larry Noble, general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement. “Pruitt can’t be an impartial administrator when it comes to the lawsuits he spearheaded, and as EPA Administrator he must step aside from those suits to protect the integrity of the agency’s decisionmaking.”

Pruitt deferred to Justina Fugh, the EPA’s ethics chief, when asked about conflicts of interests stemming from donations made to Pruitt-linked groups by fossil fuel companies. In particular, two Pruitt-linked political action committees that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from energy companies announced last week that they would shut down amid reports of questionable spending. 

During his first questions, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) trotted out a poster-sized chart drawing lines between Pruitt-affiliated fundraising groups and donations from six major energy companies, including Koch Industries, Exxon Mobil Corp. and coal giants Murray Energy and Continental Resources. Whitehouse asked pointedly whether Pruitt solicited donations from the companies.

“I attended fundraising events as attorney general,” Pruitt said.

Whitehouse refined his question, asking specifically if he asked for money.

“I did not ask of Koch,” Pruitt said, stuttering. “What were the other ones?”

Whitehouse once again displayed the names on the chart.

“I have not asked for money on behalf of RAGA,”  Pruitt said, referring to the Republican Attorney General Association, which he chaired in 2012 and ’13.

Pruitt tried to counter by saying he has sued companies on the list. Whitehouse asked which ones.

“With respect to the rule of law ? Exxon Mobil,” Pruitt said.

Speaking out of turn, Whitehouse shot back by noting the lawsuit had “nothing to do with the environment.” Pruitt championed Exxon Mobil last year against a coalition of Democratic attorneys general who opened a fraud investigation into the oil giant’s history of covering up evidence of global warming.

When the hearing resumed after an hourlong lunch break, Pruitt recalled filing lawsuits against other oil companies, including Valero Energy, BP and ConocoPhillips.

If Democrats used their time to investigate Pruitt’s environmental record, Republicans spent theirs putting the EPA itself on trial. Conservative senators, along with Pruitt, repeatedly described an agency suffering from “mission creep,” putting undue burdens on farmers, lumberjacks and fishermen to obtain special permits. Pruitt said the agency showed “an attitude of indifference” to states’ rights.

Yet, pressed by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), he refused to commit to upholding California’s vehicle pollution standards, which are stricter than the national average. Markey slammed what he called a “double standard” in which Pruitt deems state actions aligned with oil and gas interests to be kosher but questions state regulations that go beyond EPA rules.

“When it comes to Massachusetts or California or other states trying to increase their protection for the environment, protect their victimization from carbon pollution, you say there you’re going to review,” Markey said. “The science hasn’t changed. The new clean energy technologies haven’t changed. The danger to the public from environmental exposure to carbon pollution hasn’t changed. So from our perspective, we are fearful of what a review would actually result in. From my perspective, it’s going to lead to you undoing the right of states to be able to provide that protection.”