EPA nominee Scott Pruitt gets grilled on fossil fuel ties at confirmation hearing

“Simply put, Scott Pruitt is unprepared and unfit for the job.”


By: Ben Jervey and Steve Horn

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt sat down before the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee for his confirmation hearing as a nominee to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Senator John Barrasso, the Wyoming Republican who newly chairs the committee, opened the hearing with a number of compliments for Pruitt. Just after, the ranking Democrat, Tom Carper of Delaware, used his introductory remarks to say that he’s never opposed an EPA nominee before, from either party, and strongly indicated that Pruitt wouldn’t get his vote.

The rest of the more than three hour morning session proceeded in turn, with Republican members complimenting the attorney general and lobbing him softball questions, and the Democrats grilling him on his stance on climate science, his ties to the fossil fuel industry, and his perspective on what role the EPA has in actually, well, protecting the environment.

Pruitt, who called famous climate denier Senator James Inhofe a “mentor,” opened with a lengthy statement in which he said that the “job of a regulator is to make things regular,” and admitted that “human activity in some manner” impacts the planet’s climate, before backing off and claiming widespread uncertainty over how much climate change can be attributed to humans.

In his opening statements, Pruitt didn’t bring up his role with the Republican Attorneys General Association, the Rule of Law Defense Fund, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), or any other affiliations that have helped him secure funding and support from the fossil fuel industry.

DeSmog recently mapped out this web of potential conflicts of interest, which you can see here:

Before the hearing formally got underway, protesters were turned away from the entrace, and one woman’s voice could be heard saying, “My people are dying at Standing Rock. I have the right to be here.” This followed a report tweeted by Gavin Bade of Utility Dive that Republican staffers had paid people to stand in line to keep protesters out of the hearing room.

Throughout the hearing, after a tough line of questioning from a Democrat, Chairman Barrasso would often enter into the record an article or letter that provided some manner of cover to Pruitt. For example, after Senator Bernie Sanders called him out repeatedly for not trusting the scientific consensus on climate change, Barrasso produced a letter by the Cornwall Alliance that supported Pruitt’s nomination and bore the signature of a few dozen scientists, most if not all of whom have been exposed as recipients of fossil fuel funds.

Notable among the letter’s signatures are Anthony Watts, a climate skeptic and former television meteorologist who has received funding from the Heartland Institute; Willie Soon, an aerospace engineer whose research claiming the Sun, rather than humans, causes climate change has received considerable funding from the oil and gas industry; and Roy Spencer, a research scientist at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, who says “the extra carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere is not enough to cause the observed warming in the last 100 years” and who has authored reports for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, whose funders include Koch Industries, Koch Family Foundations, the tobacco Industry, and ExxonMobil.

Senator Whitehouse exposes Pruitt’s fossil fuel ties

An early barrage of questions came from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, the Rhode Island Democrat, who held up a chart (that resembles a simplified version of ours above) to show clearly how Pruitt has benefited financially from fossil fuel companies including Devon Energy, Southern Company, Koch Industries, and ExxonMobil.

Senator Merkley asks why Pruitt sends letters written by oil companies

In 2014, the New York Times reported that Attorney General Pruitt’s office sent a letter to the EPA, complaining about the agency’s methane rules, which was almost entirely written by Devon Energy. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon pushed him on this point:

“There were 1,016 words in the letter, and all but 37 words were written by Devon Energy,” said Merkley.  “Do you acknowledge that you presented a private oil company’s position, rather than a position developed by the people of Oklahoma?”

Pruitt demurred, and Merkley pushed, “How can you present that as representing the people of Oklahoma when you simply only consulted an oil company to push its own point of view for its private profit?”

Pruitt responded meekly that the letter wasn’t intended to represent only one company, but the whole industry.

Senator Booker on asthma and public health

After discussing the 14 lawsuits that Pruitt has brought against the EPA, all but one of which involved a co-litigator that had contributed to his campaign or political action committees, Senator Corey Booker of New Jersey asked if his concern for protecting the public health of Oklahomans was as strong as it was for protecting oil and gas companies.

“Do you know how many kids in Oklahoma have asthma?” Booker asked.

“I do not, sir,” Pruitt said.

“More than 111,000 children in Oklahoma. More than one in ten have asthma, one of the highest rates in the U.S.A,” Booker explained. “How many letters did you send to the EPA about this public health crisis?”

The question wound up being a rhetorical one, as Pruitt refused to answer.

Senators Markey and Sanders on climate science and record-setting heat

It was announced the morning of the hearing that 2016 was the hottest in the 137 year record, and Senator Edward Markey led with that news flash. He then got Pruitt to say, under oath, “I do not believe that climate change is a hoax.”

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont followed the climate science line of questions, bringing up the studies showing 97 percent of climate scientists are in consensus that humans are causing climate change, and asking Pruitt why he didn’t trust such staggering agreement among experts.

“You are applying to a job as administrator of the EPA to protect our environment. The majority of our scientists are telling us we need to act boldly and you’re telling me there needs to be more debate and we should not act boldly.”

Sanders was incredulous when he asked if it was Pruitt’s opinion that the EPA should play a role in regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and Pruitt answered, “My personal opinion is immaterial.”

This post will be updated with more from the afternoon session of the hearing.

Afternoon session

The hearing would end up lasting another three hours after the lunch break.

Many of the same themes and topics which arose during the morning session repeated themselves during round two. Senators Whitehouse, Markey, Merkley, Carper, and Booker led the round of adversarial questioning, while U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) consistently inserted reports, news stories, analyses and the like into the record almost immediately in rebuttal to many of their questions after they asked them.

Carper asked Pruitt if he had done anything, as attorney general, regarding clean air issues in Oklahoma. In so doing, he held up a chart depicting pollution in various counties in the Sooner State.

Pruitt responded by saying, “I really believe there needs to be a tremendous effort by counties across this country to move non-attainment into attainment.”

“There needs to be great coordination between EPA and local officials in achieving attainment,” he continued.

Pruitt also came under fire by Whitehouse on his role in raising dark money from the Republican Attorneys General Association and how he planned to disclose that money to the EPA ethics office.

The Sierra Club has called for the nixing of Pruitt’s nomination.

Simply put, Scott Pruitt is unprepared and unfit for the job,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a press release. “The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and all Senators who care about their constituents should stand up for communities across the country and oppose this nomination.”


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Steve Horn is a Madison, WI-based Research Fellow for DeSmogBlog and a freelance investigative journalist. He previously was a reporter and researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy. In his free time, Steve is a competitive runner, with a personal best time of 2:43:04 in the 2009 Boston Marathon. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, majoring in political science and legal studies, his writing has appeared in Al Jazeera America, The Guardian, Vice News, The Nation, Wisconsin Watch, Truth-Out, AlterNet and elsewhere.