Senate Confirms Scott Pruitt as E.P.A. Head

Source: By CORAL DAVENPORT, New York Times • Posted: Sunday, February 19, 2017

Scott Pruitt at his confirmation hearing to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times 

WASHINGTON — The Senate confirmed Scott Pruitt on Friday to run the Environmental Protection Agency, putting a seasoned legal opponent of the agencyat the helm of President Trump’s efforts to dismantle major regulations on climate change and clean water — and to cut the size and authority of the government’s environmental enforcer.

Senators voted 52 to 46 to confirm Mr. Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general who has built a career out of suing to block the E.P.A.’s major environmental rules and has called for the dissolution of much of the agency’s authority. One Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, crossed party lines to vote against Mr. Pruitt, while two Democrats, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, both from coal-rich states where voters generally oppose environmental rules, voted for him.

Democrats railed all night on the Senate floor against Mr. Pruitt and urged Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, to delay the confirmation vote until after next Tuesday, when the Oklahoma attorney general’s office is under order to release about 3,000 of Mr. Pruitt’s emails related to his communications with the fossil fuel industry.

But the effort did little but deprive Democrats of sleep.

Democrats, environmental groups and even current E.P.A. employees have harshly criticized Mr. Pruitt’s record of fighting the mission of the agency he will now lead, as well as his close ties with the fossil fuel industry he will now regulate. Both opponents and supporters of Mr. Pruitt’s say he is well positioned to carry out Mr. Trump’s campaign trail promises to dismantle the agency and slash its ranks of employees. Mr. Trump vowed to “get rid” of the agency “in almost every form.”

A 2014 investigation by The Times found that energy lobbyists drafted letters for Mr. Pruitt to send, on state stationery, to the E.P.A., outlining the economic hardship of the environmental rules. Many of the coal, oil and gas companies represented by those lobbyists were also some his largest campaign contributors. Mr. Pruitt also worked jointly with those companies in filing multiple lawsuits against major E.P.A. regulations.

Democrats say the emails to be released on Tuesday could reveal more, and possibly disqualifying, information about those relationships.

“I reminded my colleagues that the release of these documents could be imminent and that we would be wise wait to vote on Mr. Pruitt’s nomination until we had the opportunity to review them — and shame on us if we didn’t,” said Senator Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

“Mr. Pruitt has been nominated by a man who, as a nominee, as a president-elect and now as president, has made clear his goals to degrade and destroy the E.P.A.,” Mr. Carper said. “Like many things President Trump says, we ask ourselves, ‘Did he mean it?’ With the nomination of Mr. Pruitt, it’s clear he did.”

For many Republicans, that appears to be part of Mr. Pruitt’s appeal. During the Obama administration, Mr. McConnell became a leading opponent of the president’s climate change agenda, particularly its centerpiece, a set of E.P.A. regulations intended to shut down heavily polluting coal-fired power plants and replace them with wind and solar power. Those rules, if enacted, could disproportionately hurt the economy of Mr. McConnell’s coal-rich state.

Mr. Pruitt, who has expressed skepticism about human-caused global warming, has been a key architect of the legal battle to overturn the rules.

“Pruitt is just the candidate we need at the helm of the E.P.A.,” Mr. McConnell said. “He’s exceptionally qualified. He’s dedicated to environmental protection. And, as someone with state government experience, he understands the real-world consequences of E.P.A. actions and knows that balance is the key to making policies that are sustainable over the long-term.”

Mr. McConnell added: “We should confirm him. Doing so will represent another positive change in Washington that can give hope to families in Kentucky and across the nation who are still recovering from the last eight years.”

Within days of Mr. Pruitt’s swearing-in, Mr. Trump is expected to sign one or more executive orders aimed at undoing Mr. Obama’s climate change policies, people familiar with the White House’s plans said.

While it will be impossible to undo the rules immediately, the presidential signatures would give Mr. Pruitt his marching orders to commence the one- to two-year legal process of withdrawing the Obama-era climate rules and replacing them with looser, more industry-friendly rules. It is also possible that under Mr. Pruitt, the Trump administration could pursue the bold legal strategy of challenging the underlying legal requirement that the federal government regulate planet-warming greenhouse gases in the first place.

Already, Mr. Pruitt has begun work to reshape the environmental agency. Among the candidates he has interviewed for top positions are several former senior staff members in the office of his fellow Oklahoma Republican, Senator James M. Inhofe, who has become known as Congress’s most prominent denier of the science of global warming.