Scott Pruitt is expected to be sworn in as EPA administrator later this afternoon. | Getty
The Senate handed the Environmental Protection Agency to one of its most determined foes on Friday, confirming Scott Pruitt as administrator despite public opposition from hundreds of EPA employees and Democrats’ demands for thousands of his still-undisclosed emails.
Senators voted 52-46, almost entirely on party lines, to confirm Pruitt, who as Oklahoma’s attorney general has repeatedly sued the EPA to attack many of its highest-profile regulations. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota were the only Democrats voting yes, while Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine voted no.
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Pruitt has been one of the most divisive Cabinet picks of President Donald Trump, who as a candidate pledged to “get rid of” the EPA “in almost every form,” leaving only “little tidbits left.” Pruitt has attracted fierce criticism for his own skepticism of mainstream climate science, as well as widespread expectations that he would carry out Trump’s agenda of dismantling the agency’s regulatory powers.
“Obviously there is some trepidation about how the new administration is going to go about enforcing and implementing the laws that EPA is bound to implement,” said Nicole Cantello, a Chicago-based EPA attorney and a union official there. “There’s a lot of anxiety around that because there’s been reports about what the incoming administrator stands for and what he’s done in his state that he was attorney general for.”
Trump is rumored to be planning a trip to EPA’s headquarters, just blocks from the White House, to sign executive orders on climate change or other EPA issues. The White House and EPA have remained mum about any such plans for a visit or any forthcoming orders.
Democrats also complained that Pruitt has yet to meet their demands for the release of emails he exchanged with the fossil fuel companies whose cause he often took up in court as attorney general. An Oklahoma judge on Thursday ordered Pruitt to release thousands of emails by early next week, acting on a suit filed by a liberal activist group.
Pruitt has accused EPA of siphoning power away from the states while handcuffing the coal, oil and natural gas industries and achieving only questionable environmental and public health benefits. His supporters made it clear they have high expectations for his reign in the agency’s headquarters — in a building just across the street from Trump’s hotel in downtown Washington, D.C.
“He’s going to be a great administrator, and hopefully he’ll begin to form a team who will get EPA back to the business of regulating air and water and not the extra-legal stuff they’ve been doing the past few years,” said Tom Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, a conservative think tank backed by the oil and gas industry.
“Quite candidly, this president ran on an agenda that is very different from the person he beat, which was remarkably similar to the person who previously occupied the White House,” Pyle added. “So nobody should expect there to be no differences or changes in the focus of this administration.”
He joins a Cabinet already marked by strong affinity for the fossil fuel industry, including former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.
Pruitt faces a daunting challenge: rolling back years of regulations issued under Obama, defending those actions in court and trying to scale back EPA’s power, budget and workforce. And that’s on top of issues that vexed his predecessors, such as the Flint water crisis, contentious ethanol mandates, a much-attacked regulation on wetlands and waterways, and ever-prickly Superfund cleanup operations.
He will also face a challenge no previous EPA administrator has ever faced — outspoken opposition from the agency’s rank and file before he’s even sworn in, including dozens of current employees who have held public protests against his nomination and 773 former employees who have signed onto a letter panning him.
Other career agency staffers are also fearful of what Pruitt will bring, said Christine Todd Whitman, former President George W. Bush’s first EPA administrator.
“They’re nervous and hunkering down,” she said.
Democrats contend that, policy aside, Pruitt is fraught with conflicts both from his role as one of EPA’s biggest antagonists and because of his close political connections to fossil fuel companies.
Pruitt has for now sidestepped the question of whether he can or will participate in any of the many issues he has sued EPA over, including its greenhouse gas regulations, restrictions on smog-creating ozone and limits on toxic mercury pollution from power plants. He has said he will consult with agency ethics experts on a rolling basis about the potential need to recuse himself — although he noted that as EPA administrator, he will not be acting as an attorney representing the government.
Pruitt also emerged relatively unscathed over his connections to oil and gas companies.
In 2014, The New York Times connected him to a “secretive alliance” with oil and gas companies designed to fight the Obama administration’s regulations. Pruitt denied raising money from fossil fuel interests for the Republican Attorneys General Association or the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a nonprofit offshoot of RAGA that he once chaired. He also had connections to a super PAC and a leadership PAC, both of which received major donations from energy interests but have since shut down operations.
Pruitt denied specifically fundraising from the companies that gave to those groups, and Republicans waved away concerns about his ties, saying he was only doing his job to represent the interests of his oil- and gas-heavy state.
Whitman said that once he’s settled in at EPA, Pruitt might find it’s not as easy to run an agency with national responsibilities as it is to throw rocks from Oklahoma City. She said she learned of similar constraints during her first days in the administrator’s office in 2001.
“What really struck me was the extent to which the agency was constrained by the enabling legislation,” she said.
Pruitt’s critics hope that EPA’s career staff will stand up to Pruitt if he weakens or slow-walks environmental protections.
“EPA is composed of civil servants who have been there a long time and believe in the mission of EPA and believe in the work they’ve done,” said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “I don’t expect they’ll go quietly into that good night and just wave a white flag and surrender.”
Whitman said she found that some EPA staffers were “staunch Democrats,” but that “for the most part they just wanted to protect human health and the environment, and they’d work with you if they thought that’s what you wanted to do.”
She also called on Pruitt to stand up to Trump if he feels an order goes too far.
“You do work for the president and at some point you have to salute. But if you really don’t believe in what the action is, you step aside yourself,” said Whitman, who left EPA in 2003 following repeated clashes with the Bush White House.
Pruitt represents an especially sharp departure from Obama’s approach to climate change, which relied heavily on EPA’s regulations to reduce carbon pollution from cars, trucks and power plants.
Scientists “continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind,” Pruitt wrote last May in National Review — disagreeing with the overwhelming consensus of climate researchers, who say warming driven by human-caused pollution is a gathering threat to civilization. He co-wrote the article with then-Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, who was recently appointed to fill Jeff Sessions’ Senate seat and plans to vote on Pruitt’s nomination.
Pruitt walked a finer line during his confirmation hearing, saying human activity contributes in some way to climate change but that the degree of that connection is “subject to more debate.” That still amounts to climate change denial, his critics say.
Scientists have long held that human activity, chiefly the burning of fossil fuels, has been the primary driver of climate change, and that the only way to stave off the worst effects is to drastically curb emissions now. A recent peer-reviewed study calculated that Earth is warming 170 times faster than it would without contributions from human activity.
Pruitt said at his hearing that he feels no need to revisit the EPA’s scientific finding that carbon pollution threatens human health and safety, the legal underpinning for a suite of climate regulations. But EPA’s critics hold out hope that Trump will order him to repeal the finding — noting that if it remains in place, Pruitt will eventually face a legal obligation to regulate carbon.