Senate Hearing Grills Designated EPA Head

19.01.2017 -

Just as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been battening down the hatches and tying up regulatory loose ends before the administration of President-Elect Donald Trump takes over on Jan. 20, its probable future administrator, Scott Pruitt, has given a preview of what his priorities will be. Observers commented that they were the same priorities he has had in the past.

During a hearing before the US Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee on Jan. 18 – as environmentalist protest gathered outside the chamber – Pruitt took the offensive, slamming federal regulations that address climate change while reiterating positions he has previously taken in favor of handing over more regulatory power to individual state governments.

In his opening remarks, the Trump nominee said that, as attorney general of Oklahoma, he saw examples in which the agency “became dissatisfied with the tools Congress had given it to address certain issues, and bootstrapped its own powers and tools through rule-making,” adding that, “unfortunately, this has resulted in protracted litigation.”

In this context, Democrats on the committee questioning Pruitt as a prelude to a vote in the full Senate pressed the future EPA chief as to why that he had been personally involved in 14 times in lawsuits attempting to block air and water pollution regulations. They also asked about letters claimed to have been drafted by energy lobbyists and sent by his office on state stationery to federal agencies, or President Obama – claiming that harsh environmental rules had hurt business.

Often placed in the climate change denial camp, Pruitt addressed the hearing with remarks that US media said on the one hand seemed aimed at appeasing his critics from the environmental protection movement, but mostly fell short: “Science tells us that the climate is changing and human activity in some manner impacts that change,” he said, while cautioning that “the  human ability to measure with precision the extent of that impact is subject to continuing debate and dialogue, as well they should be.”

Criticizing the remarks an understatement or simply inaccurate, the newspaper New York Times noted in a comment that a 2013 report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change summarizing climate science found it “extremely likely” that more than half of the global warming that occurred from 1951 to 2010 was a consequence of human emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The newspaper noted also that the “largest and most contentious” regulatory obligations now facing the EPA will be related to this issue, especially as it prepares to implement Obama’s Clean Power Plan aimed at slowing global warming. This would require states to curb emissions from coal-fired power plants. In one of the lawsuits in which Pruitt is said to have played a leading role, 27 states are suing the federal agency for “vastly overstepping” its regulatory authority.

At the hearing, Oklahoma’s Republican Senator James Inhofe, introducing Trump’s choice to head the EPA, praised the nominee as a “champion of state and individual rights,” who has “fought against federal overreach.” All of the lawsuits were brought to protect state and local interests from overzealous and activist agencies,” Inhofe – who environmentalists have called “one of Congress’s most prominent denialists of the established science of human-caused climate change” –  told the hearing.

Most observers believe Pruitt will be confirmed easily by the full Senate, as he is expected to receive support from all 51 Senate Republicans and Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia. Manchin is the father of Heather Bresch, head of US drugmaker Mylan Pharmaceuticals, which made headlines last autumn when it sharply increased prices for the company's life-saving EpiPen injector.