The U.S. Senate on Friday confirmed President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, giving Trump a lieutenant poised to make deep cuts to the EPA and transfer some if its enforcement responsibilities to states and localities.
Pruitt, who sued the EPA repeatedly while raising money from oil and gas interests who stood to benefit from those lawsuits, is expected to make dramatic changes at an agency created during the Nixon administration to enforce new laws such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
EPA employees are bracing for layoffs and elimination of programs dealing with climate change and wetlands protections. In a last-minute lobbying campaign, the labor union that represents EPA employees urged their members to call senators and urge them to vote against Pruitt. Environmental groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a media campaign against Pruitt
Yet Democrats couldn’t peel off Republicans to block Pruitt’s nomination. Prior to the vote, only Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, said she’d vote against Pruitt. Meanwhile, Democratic senators Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia - both of whom represent energy states - said they would support Pruitt. The final vote was 52-46, mostly along party lines, in favor of Pruitt.
Senate Democrats tried to delay the vote until Feb. 27 - hoping to put it off until Pruitt releases emails of his conversations with fossil fuel interests. On Thursday, a federal judge ruled the Oklahoma attorney general’s office must turn over thousands of emails related to Pruitt's communications, the result of two-year-old lawsuit by the Center for Media and Democracy. District Judge Aletia Haynes Timmons ordered Pruitt to turn over the records by Tuesday.
Democrats said they were also frustrated that Pruitt didn’t provide more information about the political action committees he was involved with while heading the Republican Attorney General’s Association.
“This is a man who ran a multi-million dollar dark money operation,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said Friday. “There is one hell of a conflict of interest around this individual.”
Pruitt’s supporters say he’s been the victim of a smear campaign.
“The key thing on Scott Pruitt he is very passionate about the law, in following the law,” said Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, in comments to National Public Radio on Friday. “I have no question he will follow the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, as it is written.”
Lankford added, however, that states should have the first responsibility in enforcing such laws. As EPA administrator, Pruitt is expected to be receptive to state requests to handle programs normally administered by the EPA. Environmental groups fear that, without EPA oversight, states with influential energy interests will scale back regulation of oil and gas fracking, power plant pollution and filling of wetlands.
Pruitt may not necessarily allow all states to pursue their own environmental programs. During his confirmation hearing, he stated that he may review a waiver given to California to impose emissions standards on cars and trucks.
With Pruitt’s confirmation, the White is expected to quickly roll out executive orders gutting the EPA’s climate change work and controls on power plant emissions. On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to roll back the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan and a water jurisdiction rule aimed at protecting wetlands.
Conservatives are urging Pruitt to significantly cut the EPA workforce. Myron Ebell, who formerly headed the EPA transition team for Trump, has talked about cutting EPA’s 15,000 employees by as much as two thirds.
Ebell, a climate change skeptic affiliated with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, recently argued that EPA employees were deserving of layoffs because of the impact their regulations have had on families and businesses.
“I hear all this stuff about EPA employees in tears,” said Ebell during a recent conference organized by the Society of Environmental Journalists. “I would have more sympathy for them if they had some sympathy for people whose lives they’ve destroyed, by destroying their livelihoods for no reason at all, over a long time.”
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth