People, planet, and the path ahead
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt arrives at Trump Tower in New York on Wednesday, Dec. 7.
Andrew Harnik/AP | Caption

Trump to name climate-change skeptic as EPA chief

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has led the fight by Republican-led states against the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, which calls on states to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

President-elect Donald Trump will tap Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a Republican who as has sued the Environmental Protection Agency several times during the Obama administration, to head that agency, according to multiple news reports.

Mr. Pruitt has been one of the more vocal opponents of President Obama’s EPA. He took a prominent role in battling the agency’s rules, including the Clean Power Plan, a federal rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector. A Pruitt-backed lawsuit currently has that plan tied up in the courts.

To conservatives, the pending announcement by the Trump transition team promises to put an ally of fossil-fuel development – and the jobs that come with it – at the head of an agency long derided as infringing on industry,​ states,​ and personal property rights.

Environmental groups and Democrats said the pick ​will undercut the agency's role of safeguarding clean air and water, and signals what they’d feared: Mr. Trump isn’t morphing into a friend to climate-change action.

"President-elect Trump promised to break the special interests’ grip on Washington, but his nomination of Mr. Pruitt – who has a troubling history of advocating on behalf of big oil at the expense of public health – only tightens it,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D) of New York said in a statement.

The nomination queues up a contentious fight in the Senate. Democrats will hope to persuade a handful of Republicans to cross the aisle to block Pruitt from getting the 51 votes he’ll need to be confirmed.

“It’s offensive and I’m going to do everything I can to stop his nomination,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D) of Hawaii, told reporters in the Capitol. “We’re going to need the support of some of the senators on the Republican side who have occasionally flirted with reality and have been on the correct side of history when it comes to climate change.”

“This is the worst case scenario,” he said, referring to the selection of Pruitt.

Republican senators who have in the past sided with Democrats on environmental issues, such as Maine Sen. Susan Collins, could be in play. When asked about the Pruitt nomination, Collins said, “I don’t know who he is. I truly know nothing about him or his views. I didn’t even know his name.”

Opponents said the pick of Mr. Pruitt reflects that Mr. Trump may not have undergone a climate change evolution. Some were guardedly hopeful that Mr. Trump was moderating on the issue when he met with former Vice President Al Gore this week and recently told The New York Times that he has an “open mind” on staying in an international climate change agreement.

But just as Mr. Trump has called climate change a hoax, Mr. Pruitt has questioned the whether climate change is caused by humans, which a consensus of climate scientists say is the case.

"Healthy debate is the lifeblood of American democracy, and global warming has inspired one of the major policy debates of our time. That debate is far from settled,” Pruitt wrote in a May opinion column for National Review with Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange (R). “Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind. That debate should be encouraged – in classrooms, public forums, and the halls of Congress. It should not be silenced with threats of prosecution. Dissent is not a crime.”

Opponents found those comments alarming, as well as Mr. Pruitt’s fossil fuel industry ties – a New York Times report found lawyers from Devon Energy, one of the biggest oil and gas companies operating in Oklahoma, wrote a three-page letter to EPA that Pruitt passed off as his own.

“Pruitt’s statements and actions are in direct conflict with the job to which he has been nominated,” Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. "If he is approved, his tenure as administrator would be devastating to the EPA’s ability to carry out its mission."

At an event hosted by The Christian Science Monitor in Washington this week, current EPA administrator Gina McCarthy sounded a more conciliatory tone, withholding judgment on the incoming administration and voicing cautious hope that the next administrator would “figure it out” that Americans value clean air, water, and land.

Hailing from the oil and gas state of Oklahoma, Mr. Pruitt has sought to beat back regulations that he viewed as overly burdensome to the state’s fossil fuel industry. In his website biography, Pruitt describes himself as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”

Those attributes may well have made Pruitt attractive for the post. Pruitt will be charged with regulating the oil, gas and coal industries, which Mr. Trump has said he wants boost. A lighter regulatory footprint could be one of the ways of accomplishing that feat, supporters argue.

"Pruitt will be a strong advocate for sensible policies that are good for our environment, as well as mindful of the need for affordable and reliable electricity,” Paul Bailey, senior vice president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said in as statement.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R) of West Virginia praised the pick, saying that, “I can’t make predictions, but I think most people would look very positive toward him."

For his supporters, Pruitt’s litigious streak helped to rein in what they see as illegal government overreach.

David Rivkin, an attorney at Baker Hostetler who represented Pruitt in his lawsuit against the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, said that Pruitt was uniquely committed to constitutional issues and maintaining the federalist system. He said that suited Pruitt well for the EPA, considering environmental statutes rest largely on federal-state cooperation.

“Would he protect the environment? I happen to think that environmental protection can best be advanced through serious cooperation between the states and the federal government. And this is something that Attorney General Pruitt would be able to implement superbly,” Mr. Rivkin said in an interview.

Pruitt hasn’t sued the EPA on every regulation, said Scott Segal, head of the Policy Resolution Group at Bracewell Law in Washington. He said Pruitt’s constitutionalist streak guides when he decides to weigh in on the agency’s rules.

“He looks at those rules that he finds the most egregious violation of EPA authority,” Mr. Segal, whose firm has worked with Pruitt and energy companies that oppose the Clean Power Plan, told the Monitor. “[His record] remains to be seen on the broad variety of issues – EPA administers about probably 20 different statutes.”