Oklahoma Attorney General (AG) Scott Pruitt, President-elect Trump's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), shared his vision Wednesday for a more cooperative relationship between state and federal regulators, while facing criticism from Democrats over his ties to the oil and gas industry.
Pruitt, a Republican who has served as Oklahoma’s attorney general (AG), endured several hours of questioning during a nomination hearing held by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. He helped bring a number of lawsuits against the EPA while serving as Oklahoma's AG, took the opportunity to explain why he opposed so many recent regulations proposed by the agency he now hopes to lead.
Pruitt was asked about his role in litigation challenging rules such as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, and others.
"Whether it's the MATS case or the Clean Power Plan case or the WOTUS case or a multitude of cases, the courts have agreed that the EPA has exceeded its authority, that the EPA has not acted within the framework that Congress has established in performing the role that it's supposed to perform," Pruitt told the lawmakers.
"...Process matters, rule of law matters, federalism matters. Those issues matter because Congress has said so. It is Congress that gives authority to the EPA. The EPA is an administrative agency; it is not a legislative body."
The nominee went on to further delineate his vision for state and federal cooperation on environmental regulation, taking not-so-subtle swipes at the more top-heavy approach the EPA has taken under the Obama administration.
"The states are not mere vessels of federal will," he said. "They don't exist simply to carry out federal dictates from Washington, DC. There are substantive requirements, obligations, authority, jurisdiction granted to the states under our environmental statutes.
"That needs to be respected. When it's not respected, that is what spawned most of this litigation that has been referenced here...And why did it spawn it? Because it matters. It matters that the states participate in the way that Congress has directed, and they've been unable to do so for a number of years."
Pruitt said ensuring the EPA follows the rule of law would provide consistency for those expected to adhere to its regulations.
"Regulators are supposed to make things ‘regular,’...to fairly and equitably enforce the rules and not pick winners and losers,” he said. “A regulator should not be for or against any sector of our economy. Instead, a regulator ought to follow the law in setting up the rules so those who are regulated can plan and allocate resources to meet the standards versus operating in a state of uncertainty and duress."
Splitting from Trump
Pruitt also looked to distance himself from some of the more controversial positions espoused at one point or another by the president-elect. In his opening statement, he made it clear he does not believe that climate change is a hoax, as Trump has stated. He told the committee "the science tells us that the climate is changing and that human activity in some manner impacts that change." However, he left some wiggle room regarding debates to be had about "the degree and extent of that impact, and what to do about it."
Regarding past Trump comments that have appeared to dismiss or trivialize the role of the EPA, Pruitt said, "I believe there is a very important role for the Environmental Protection Agency...I believe there are air quality issues and water quality issues that cross state lines that the jurisdiction of the EPA, its involvement...is extremely important."
Oil, Gas Ties Scrutinized
The nominee also tried to get out in front of criticism from Democrats over his ties to the oil and gas industry.
"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," he said. "I utterly reject that narrative."
But that didn't stop Democrats from hammering Pruitt over his work on behalf of oil and gas interests in Oklahoma. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) referenced a New York Times investigation published in 2014 that showed Pruitt's office had copied onto its own letterhead a letter written by Devon Energy Corp. questioning the EPA over its estimations of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.
"You said earlier you listen to everyone," Merkley said. "In drafting this letter, you took an oil company's position, and then without consulting people who have diverse views of the impact you sent it off. How can you present that as representing the people of Oklahoma when you simply only consulted an oil company to push its own point of view for its private profit?"
Pruitt countered that Devon's concerns over EPA's methods reflected the broader concerns of an industry crucial to Oklahoma. Devon is headquartered in Oklahoma City and is one of the state’s largest producers.
"There was a concern about the overestimated percentages that the EPA put in the record," Pruitt said. "It was a record-based challenge. That was the expression of the letter to the EPA, and it was representing the interests of an industry in the state of Oklahoma. Not a company, an industry."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) grilled Pruitt over his involvement with the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) and the 501(c)4 Rule of Law Defense Fund, calling the latter a "dark money operation." Whitehouse suggested these groups have benefited from political donations from fossil fuel companies and that this presents a conflict of interest for Pruitt as EPA administrator.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) called on Pruitt to recuse himself from cases he was involved with as Oklahoma's attorney general, often cases where fossil fuel companies joined in the litigation against the EPA.
"I have every willingness and desire to recuse as directed" by EPA's ethics officials, Pruitt said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) brought up the recent increase in seismic activity in Oklahoma linked to oil and gas wastewater injection wells. While Pruitt pointed to the actions taken by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to curb injection volumes in response to the earthquakes, Sanders seemed unimpressed.
"You're in a state which is seeing a record-breaking number of earthquakes," Sanders said. "You're the attorney general. Obviously, you have stood up and said you will do everything you can to stop future earthquakes as a result of fracking."
"Senator, I have acknowledged that I'm concerned," Pruitt said.
"You've acknowledged that you're concerned," Sanders said. "...Your state's having a record-breaking number of earthquakes and you acknowledge that you're concerned. If that's the kind of EPA administrator you will be, you're not going to get my vote."