Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) will not promise to recuse himself from lawsuits he brought against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) if confirmed as the agency’s administrator, he told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday.
The admission came in a testy exchange with Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA), which continued a theme of the Pruitt confirmation hearing: Would he break from his history of serving the interests of oil and gas companies?
“You have sued the EPA 19 times to stop clean air and water protections. Eight of those cases are still ongoing,” Markey said. “As EPA administrator, you would be in a position to serve as plaintiff, defendant, defendant, judge and jury on these ongoing eight lawsuits, and that would be wrong.”
Pruitt would commit only to consulting with the EPA ethics counsel on whether he should recuse himself from those cases.
“If you don’t [recuse yourself] we will have a fundamental conflict of interest presented by your presence as the administrator of the EPA. It just gets down to being a matter as simple as that,” Markey said.
Of the many cases Pruitt has brought against the EPA, nearly all have been supported by oil and gas interests. In fact, Pruitt plainly acknowledged that as Oklahoma attorney general, he acted on behalf of the oil and gas industry, which is a major economic presence in the state.
Pruitt has been criticized for using his position as a spokesperson for oil and gas interests. In 2014, he wrote a letter to the EPA on state letterhead that was later found to have been written by Devon Energy. The letter opposed the agency’s Mercury Air Toxics Standard.
“That was a step taken as attorney general representing the interest of our state,” Pruitt said Wednesday.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) was incredulous that a letter drafted by an oil company’s attorneys fully represented the interests of the people in the state.
“You said earlier you listened to everyone,” Merkley said. “In drafting this letter you took an oil company’s position, and then without consulting people who have diverse views about the impact, you sent it off. How can you present that is representing the people of Oklahoma when you simply only consulted an oil company to push its own point of view for its private profit?”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) also questioned Pruitt’s ties to oil and gas interests at the beginning of the hearing, bringing out a giant graph of how oil companies, the Koch brothers, and industry players were tied to Pruitt and the groups he represents, including the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA).
Pruitt denied ever asking Exxon, Devon Energy, Koch Industries, and Murray Energy for funds on behalf of RAGA.
Later in the hearing, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) criticized Whitehouse (without ever naming him), saying, “One thing I do object to?—?it’s happened for years, since I’ve been a member of this committee?—?and this is to list political contributions and suggest that somehow they make an individual suspect or not qualified.”