Five takeaways from Pruitt's EPA hearing

Five takeaways from Pruitt's EPA hearing
© Greg Nash

Democrats don’t have the votes to stop Scott Pruitt’s confirmation, but they signaled at his hearing Wednesday that they will seek to damage him politically as much as possible.

Pruitt was hammered for his record as Oklahoma’s attorney general, including his fundraising from fossil fuel companies and lawsuits against the agency he now looks to lead. 

Republicans only need 50 votes to confirm him, and there have been no signs of GOP defections.

Here are five takeaways from his confirmation hearing.    

Pruitt says climate change is not a hoax

Pruitt’s hearing took place the same day news reports said that 2016, as expected, was the hottest year on record.


It was more evidence of the danger of climate change for Democrats on the panel.

Pruitt broke with Trump, who has said that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to hobble United States manufacturing.

“I do not believe climate change is a hoax,” Pruitt told Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyOvernight Health Care: Drug industry nervous about Grassley | CDC warns public not to eat romaine lettuce | Sanders unveils new drug pricing bill 2020 Democrats challenge Trump's use of troops at Mexico border The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems to investigate Ivanka Trump's emails | Judge blocks Trump from denying asylum to migrants | Turkey pardon today at WH MORE (D-Mass.). “Science tells us that the climate is changing, and that human activity, in some manner, impacts that change.”

At the same time, Pruitt suggested it is unclear to what degree humans are affecting the climate.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersOvernight Health Care: Drug industry nervous about Grassley | CDC warns public not to eat romaine lettuce | Sanders unveils new drug pricing bill Sanders and Khanna have a plan to lower your drug prices 2020 Democrats challenge Trump's use of troops at Mexico border MORE (I-Vt.) repeatedly pushed Pruitt to endorse the scientific consensus that humans are the main contributor to climate change, via greenhouse gases.

Pruitt refused, instead calling for “more debate” on the subject.

His position aligns with many Republicans and Trump nominees. It makes it harder to label Pruitt a “denier,” while leaving significant room for him to resist regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

Pruitt said the EPA has an “obligation” to regulate carbon dioxide under a 2007 Supreme Court decision and the EPA’s “endangerment finding,” a 2009 decision establishing carbon emissions as a threat to public health. 

But Trump has said he would reconsider the endangerment finding, and Pruitt himself joined a failed lawsuit in 2012 to undo it.  

“The endangerment finding is there and needs to be enforced and respected,” he said. “There is nothing I know that would cause a review of it.”

Pruitt wants to give power to the states

The phrase of the day was “cooperative federalism,” Pruitt’s preference for a regulatory scheme in which the EPA and states share the burden of executing air and water laws. 

“Cooperative federalism is at the heart of many environmental statutes passed by this body,” Pruitt said. “The reason for that is it’s the states that have the resources, the expertise and the understanding of the unique challenges facing the environment.”

The proposal is a welcome one for Republicans, who have long said that the EPA, under Obama, is a heavy-handed agency that has reached beyond the power granted to it under the law.

Democrats argue federal regulations protect states from pollution that they shouldn’t be blamed for, such as emissions that drift across state lines or water pollution that flows along the nation’s rivers. 

“Your passion for devolving power down to states doesn't help us, because our state regulators can't do anything about any of those problems,” Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseTrump handpicked new AG ‘to do his bidding’ in Russia probe, says Dem strategist Blumenthal: Whitaker appointment raises 'danger of a slow-motion Saturday Night Massacre' The Hill's Morning Report — Are Pelosi’s Democratic detractors going too far? MORE (D-R.I.) said.

Pruitt, though, said Democrats misrepresented his regulatory approach.

“That’s not what I’m advocating,” he said. “We need a partnership, a true partnership, between the EPA in performing its role and the states performing theirs.”

Dems are linking Pruit to the oil industry

Democrats pressured Pruitt on the donations he’s taken from the oil industry, suggesting it had too much influence over his work in Oklahoma.

During a tense line of questioning from Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan Merkley2020 Democrats challenge Trump's use of troops at Mexico border US detaining highest number of migrants in 17 years: report Warren, 2020 Dems target private immigration detention center operators MORE (D-Ore.), Pruitt defended a letter he sent to the EPA that was an exact copy of a message sent to him by an oil company. 

“That was a step that I was taking as attorney general representing the interests of our state,” he said. “That was an effort to protect the state’s interest in making the voice of all Oklahomans heard on a very important issue for our state.”

Merkley responded: “How can you present that as representing the people of Oklahoma when you only consulted with an oil company?”

Republicans and industry groups have sought to run interference against the Democratic attack.

Barrasso and other Republicans highlighted news reports about donations from environmental groups to senators who sit on the committee, and campaign contributions from oil companies to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWatergate’s John Dean: Nixon would tell Trump 'he's going too far' Senate Homeland Security chairman requests briefing on Ivanka Trump emails House GOP to hold hearing into DOJ’s probe of Clinton Foundation MORE’s presidential campaign.

GOP looks to reshape the EPA 

Republican members of the committee indicated they expect Pruitt to overhaul the EPA, an agency they have long targeted as too broad. 

Throughout the hearing, they parsed his answers to reveal a nominee who, like them, oppose many of the rules issued by the EPA under Obama. 

While Democrats slammed him for suing the agency more than a dozen times as attorney general, Republicans worked to cast those lawsuits as a counterweight to federal overreach, and Pruitt was receptive to their framing. 

“Your goal is not to do away with regulation, your goal is to make it such that the EPA follows their regulatory authority,” Sen. John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanOvernight Defense: Duncan Hunter refusing to step down from committees | Trump awards Medal of Honor to widow of airman | Pentagon names pick for Mideast commander Trump awards posthumous Medal of Honor to family of fallen Air Force sergeant GOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE MORE (R-Ark.) said. 

They defended his record in Oklahoma as one focused on balancing both environmental issues and the economy.

“Far from being an enemy of the environment, Scott Pruitt has proven to be an expert at balancing economic growth with environmental stewardship,” Sen. Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeTrump and Congress on collision course with military spending Overnight Energy: Trump to nominate Wheeler as EPA chief | House votes to remove protections for gray wolves | Lawmakers aim to pass disaster funds for California fires Trump to nominate former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as next EPA administrator MORE (R-Okla.) said.

No votes are changed

Pruitt is a top target for Dems, but it’s unlikely his hearing changed anyone’s vote.

Many Dems will vote against him, while it’s likely that all Republicans will support him.

Pruitt repeated, several times, that “we must reject the notion that if you’re pro-energy, you’re anti-environment,” and his written testimony nodded to the need for rules that don’t hurt “jobs, communities and most importantly families.”

Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoErnst elected to Senate GOP leadership Court rules against Trump administration on gillnet ban rollback The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Dem path to a Senate majority narrows MORE (R-W.Va.) noted a handful of coal miners sitting in the committee room, and used them to warn against too-extensive regulations. 

“The country is divided on a lot of the issues in and around involving what you’re endeavoring to headline here at the EPA,” she said. “Those are the faces of the issues that I try to address.”