Senate Confirms Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as Nation's Top Environmental Watchdog

Feb 17, 2017

The U.S. Senate on Friday confirmed Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, a federal regulatory agency the Oklahoma politician has built his brand fighting against. 

Pruitt has led a coordinated legal effort to fight the EPA through the courts, an alliance with other Republican attorneys general that’s made him popular among conservatives. The confirmation sends a strong signal that Congressional Republicans share with President Donald Trump a vision of diminished federal oversight of the fossil fuel industry.

John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, on Friday accused the EPA of mounting an eight-year “regulatory rampage.”

“The EPA’s overreaching regulations have stunted job growth, hurt our economy and failed to help the agency meet its mission,” he said on the Senate floor.

The 52 to 46 vote fell largely along party lines. Oklahoma’s Republican senators Jim Inhofe and James Lankford voted yes to confirm Pruitt.

“Scott Pruitt is a highly qualified, principled man, and will make an exceptional EPA Administrator,” Inhofe said in a statement after the confirmation vote.

Two Democrats broke rank and voted for Pruitt: Senators Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. One Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, defected and voted against the nomination.

Democrats and environmental groups fiercely opposed Pruitt’s nomination and campaigned relentlessly to derail his confirmation, citing the Oklahoma attorney general’s close financial and political ties with the fossil fuel industry and his statements questioning climate change science.

“He will not be an advocate for the American people that the EPA is charged with protecting,” Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, said in the hours before the final vote.

Pruitt has declined interview requests since his nomination as EPA administrator.

CONFIRMATION PROCESS

At a six-hour Jan. 19 confirmation hearing, Pruitt said he did not think climate change was a hoax — a position proffered by Sen. Inhofe and President Trump. Pruitt acknowledged the role humans and CO2 play in fueling climate change. But he questioned the degree of that influence in statements that don’t align with the scientific consensus that such activity is “extremely likely” the central reason global temperatures are increasing.

Speaking on the Senate floor shortly before the final vote, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said climate change is not an issue where an EPA administrator should be skeptical.

“Either you accept the overwhelming opinion of climate scientists and researchers — or you don’t,” he said.

Pruitt has filed or joined at least 14 lawsuits against the EPA — efforts designed to block rules on mercury, regional haze from coal-fired power plants and President Obama’s signature Clean Power Plan — a well-publicized legal crusade Democrats and environmental groups said made the Oklahoma attorney general unqualified to serve as the nation’s chief environmental watchdog.

Republicans on Capitol Hill and in Oklahoma pointed to Pruitt’s role in negotiating the settlement of a long-running dispute between the state, Oklahoma City and Native American nations over water that was settled in August 2016 as proof that the Oklahoma attorney general is capable and interested in building a consensus on divisive environmental issues.

OBJECTIONS, OBSTRUCTIONS

Democrats boycotted procedural committee hearings to stall Pruitt’s nomination and sought to delay the final confirmation vote until internal emails with fossil fuel companies sought by a watchdog group and ordered released by an Oklahoma judge were made public. In response, Republicans accused Democrats of obstructionism and throwing a political “tantrum.”

“It is simply about their disappointment with the results of the November election,” Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, said during a Feb. 2 hearing boycotted by Democrats.

Democrats and environmental groups also pointed to Pruitt’s record in the Oklahoma attorney general’s office in opposing his nomination as EPA boss.

After taking over as Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt dismantled an Environmental Protection Unit created by his predecessor and created a new Federalism Unit to fight what he considers federal government overreach. Pruitt says environmental enforcement continued under the authority of a different unit, though court records and state financial data suggest environmental enforcement hasn’t been a top priority of the agency under his leadership.

Pruitt walked back a legal fight to clean up eastern Oklahoma rivers polluted by chicken manure after accepting tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions linked to the poultry industry, a report by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group verified by StateImpact shows.

Republicans, alongside oil, gas and coal companies, championed Pruitt as a regulatory reformer. They said the Oklahoma attorney general will reel in an EPA that is strangling industry and the economy with unnecessary regulations.

As the 14th EPA administrator, Pruitt is taking over an agency of 15,000 employees, some of which fought hard to keep him from getting the job. In a rare public display of resistance, waves of workers called their Senators in protest, and 773 former employees signed a letter opposing his confirmation.

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