Senate Confirms Pruitt, Despite Questions Over His Fossil Fuel Ties

Conservationists, scientists and EPA staff fear what's to come under the leadership of a man who built a career around suing the agency he now heads.

The U.S. Senate confirmed Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency on Friday, bringing to a close one of the most contentious battles over President Donald Trump's appointments for Cabinet-level departments.

Pruitt built much of his career on suing the agency that he will now lead. As attorney general in Oklahoma he filed lawsuits against the EPA 14 times, 13 of which were on behalf of industry. The lawsuits sought to strike down regulations targeting oil and natural gas drilling, seeking to reduce mercury poisoning, and aimed at curbing the carbon pollution that is the primary driver of global warming.

During his Senate confirmation hearing, Pruitt rejected the long-held consensus that human activities are driving climate change.

"Science tells us the climate is changing and human activity in some matter impacts that change," Pruitt remarked. "The ability to measure and pursue the degree and the extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue."

The world's leading science organizations, as well as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agree that human activities are the primary driver of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and that those gases are increasing global temperatures, which is causing more frequent and more intense extreme weather events, like downpours and droughts.

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A 2014 New York Times investigation found that during Pruitt's tenure as attorney general, he released on official letterhead a memo drafted by lawyers from Devon Energy that was critical of federal monitoring of air pollution from the oil and gas sector.

"Outstanding!" said William F. Whitsitt, who headed the company's government relations, in a 2011 note to Pruitt's office. "The timing of the letter is great, given our meeting this Friday with both EPA and the White House."

Pruitt's ties to the fossil fuel sector were the main point of controversy over his nomination, galvanizing opposition to his candidacy.

An Oklahoma judge issued an order yesterday requiring Pruitt to release thousands of documents related to his communications with the fossil fuel industry, which he had refused to disclose during the Senate confirmation process. The suit was brought by the Center for Media and Democracy. Senate Democrats sought to delay a vote on Pruitt until Tuesday, when he is required to meet the court deadline.

Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said Pruitt "will be the worst, most dangerous administrator in EPA history."

"Make no mistake, Scott Pruitt is going to put people's lives at risk to help special interests pollute our air and water. This is new and this is dangerous," Suckling said in a statement. "We'll be drinking dirtier water and breathing dirtier air because of this disturbing decision, and our wildlife and climate will pay a terrible price."

Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute called Pruitt "one of the most controversial EPA administrators to enter office."

"EPA must be able to continue its crucial role in reducing the dangerous pollution that causes climate change," he said in a statement. "Congress and the Supreme Court have affirmed EPA's obligation to protect Americans from climate change and its dangerous impacts. As EPA administrator, Pruitt needs to stop politicizing science and undermining the measures that protect Americans."

Earlier this week, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released suggested guidelines for preserving the integrity of government science under the Trump administration and launched a website where efforts to censor government science can be reported.

Following Pruitt's confirmation, UCS President Ken Kimmel published a blog post outlining the organization's concerns about the future of science-based decision making at EPA.

"We call on Mr. Pruitt to declare that scientific integrity is a core guiding principal for the EPA, that he will abide by the existing EPA scientific integrity policy, and even look for ways to improve it, as recommended by UCS," wrote Kimmel.

RELATED: Don't Politicize Government Research, Says Union of Concerned Scientists

The Senate vote to confirm Pruitt was 52-46, with Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican of Maine, voting against Pruitt, while Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, both Democrats from fossil-fuel rich states, voted in favor of his nomination.

Reuters reported yesterday that the White House is considering several executive orders related to EPA regulations, which could fulfill Trump campaign promises to significantly constrain the agency's regulatory reach, as well as its budget.

Trump cast doubt on the scientific consensus that human activities are driving climate change in his campaign for office, and has called global warming a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese in order to destroy the American economy.

Since taking office, Trump has reversed an Obama administration decision that temporarily halted construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, as well as the former president's veto of the Keystone XL pipeline. Trump also issued an executive order calling for the elimination of two federal regulations for every new regulation proposed by an agency, which could impact existing EPA provisions aimed at protecting clean water, air and soil.

Congressman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said Pruitt would be a "tremendous leader."

"I look forward to working with the Trump administration and Administrator Pruitt in bringing our country out of an era of red tape and into a more transparent age based on sound science," Smith said.

Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an industry group, welcomed Pruitt's appointment.

"The Agency has a mission of tremendous importance to human health and the environment and Scott Pruitt's dedication to the rule of law will be of material assistance to achieving these regulatory objectives," he said in a statement. "Responsible regulatory reform can make our shared environmental objectives all easier to achieve."

J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 9,000 EPA employees, said in a statement that, despite calls to rein in the agency's reach, the number of EPA staff is lower today than it was in 1999, "despite a significant growth in responsibilities."

"The biologists, scientists, lab technicians, engineers, and other civil servants who work at the EPA must be able to do their jobs without political interference or fear of retribution," said Cox. "Ensuring the independence of our career civil servants at EPA and all federal agencies is an essential part of our democratic government and something that we will fight to maintain."

Pruitt is expected to be sworn in early next week.