WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, began trying to convince Congress on Wednesday that he'll protect the environment despite having filed several lawsuits to block the agency's regulations.
Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general, told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee during an all-day hearing that he challenged the agency because he believes it overstepped its boundaries, and not because he opposes the protection of clean air and water.
Reflecting Republican complaints about an overly aggressive EPA, Pruitt said he'll balance protecting the environment with preserving jobs.
Pruitt said it’s a “false paradigm” that being pro-environment means being anti-energy. "It’s not an either-or proposition," he said.
Pruitt also appeared to split somewhat from Trump, acknowledging that climate change is caused “in some manner” by human behavior.
Asked by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., if he agrees with Trump that global warming is a “hoax,” Pruitt said he does not.
But later, under questioning by Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., Pruitt declined to say how much is caused by people.
Pruitt is proving to be among the most polarizing of Trump's cabinet nominees, with Republicans including Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe saying that he will rein in a “radical environmental agenda” pursued by the EPA under the Obama administration.
Pruitt will ensure the agency lives within the boundaries set by Congress, Inhofe said, “nothing more, nothing less.”
Democrats, however, portrayed him as a lackey for energy companies that have contributed to his political campaigns.
“You have a career of working on behalf of the fossil fuel industry to eviscerate the rules,” Markey told him.
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, noted that Christine Todd Whitman, who headed the EPA under President George W. Bush, has said she has not seen a nominee as “disdainful of the agency and what the agency does" as Pruitt.
Carper also noted that Trump said on the campaign trail that he will get rid of the agency and that the environment will be "fine."
“We’re concerned we won’t be fine,” he said.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., asked Pruitt to acknowledge campaign contributions from Exxon, Koch Industries, and the coal company Murray Energy. He repeatedly asked if Pruitt had solicited the money.
Pruitt said he could not recall whether he’s received money from the companies, or the amounts he received, but he acknowledged having attended a fundraiser for the Republican Attorney Generals Association's political committee.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., noted a 2014 New York Times investigation that a found a letter written by Pruitt disputing EPA estimates about the impact of natural gas drilling was actually authored by lobbyists for Oklahoma-based Devon Energy.
Pruitt said the letter did not benefit any single company but affected an industry important to the state.
Asked by Massachusetts' Markey if he agrees with Trump’s statements that climate change is a hoax, Pruitt said, "I do not believe it is a hoax.”
Asked if that represented a division with Trump, Pruitt reiterated, “I do not believe climate change is a hoax.”
Sanders asked how much of climate change Pruitt believes is caused by human behavior.
Pruitt said that’s “subject to more debate.”
Asked by Sanders why he believes the climate is changing, Pruitt said his “personal opinion is not material.”
Sanders asked incredulously, “You’re going to be the head of the agency to protect the environment, and your personal opinions are immaterial?”
Pruitt's confirmation is expected in the Republican-controlled Congress along party lines, despite opposition from Democrats including Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa.
Though not a member of the committee, Casey said in a statement Tuesday that he opposes Pruitt's nomination.
“I am concerned that the standards that protect the quality of the water Pennsylvanians drink and the air Pennsylvanians breath will be weakened and our commonwealth’s children will pay the price,” he said.
However, Republicans blasted the EPA during Obama’s administration, and Pruitt said, “People in the country are hungry for change."
Committee Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said Pruitt has demonstrated that he will take on the industry when necessary. But, he said, Pruitt “understands the need to protect the environment while allowing the economy to grow.”
EPA regulations, Barrasso said, “have done great damage to hard-working citizens.”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., also blasted Obama's EPA for “regulatory overreach" that has caused a “desperate situation in our state."
"The EPA has given no indication it cares about the economic impact of its policies," she said in a statement, adding that Pruitt would “restore the rule of law at the EPA.”
Kery Murakami is the Washington, D.C. reporter for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Contact him at email@example.com.