The Oklahoma attorney general’s confirmation hearing proved that he has made a career out of putting the interests of polluters above public health.
Scott Pruitt spent much of his Senate confirmation hearing trying to explain why he sent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a 2011 complaint on his official Oklahoma attorney general letterhead, when the letter was actually written by lawyers for Devon Energy, one of the state’s largest oil and gas companies.
“That was a step that I was taking as attorney general, representing the interests of our state,” Pruitt said at one point, as if turning an oil company’s position into official state policy—verbatim and with no public notice or review—was the very model of representative governance.
But when it came to the question of children’s health, Pruitt, who has gone to court trying to block EPA rules that reduce air pollution and help save lives, could not replicate the kind of concern he showed for the fossil-fuel industry.
“Do you know how many kids in Oklahoma, roughly, have asthma?” asked New Jersey senator Cory Booker.
“I do not,” Pruitt replied.
The answer is 127,000—14 percent of the state’s children—according to the American Lung Association. “That’s one of the highest asthma rates in the entire United States of America,” said Booker. “How many letters did you write to the EPA about this health crisis? If this is representative government, did you represent those children? Did you ever let any of them write letters on your letterhead?”
There couldn’t be a more vivid example of why the Senate must reject Pruitt’s nomination to become the next EPA administrator.
As Senator Jeff Merkley put it to Pruitt, “a public office is about serving the public…but you used your office as a direct extension of an oil company rather than a direct extension of the interests of the public health of the people of Oklahoma.”
This isn’t about politics. It’s about fitness to serve. Someone who has built a career out of siding with fossil-fuel companies and other big polluters over the quality of our environment and our children’s health is not fit to serve as the nation’s top environmental steward.
Pruitt, in fact, is the worst candidate ever nominated to head the EPA in the agency’s 46-year history.
During questioning by members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works, Pruitt detailed a career spent suing the EPA to try to block the agency from doing its job: going to court to stop efforts to defend clean air and keep our kids safe against climate change; trying to kill commonsense standards that protect the wetlands and streams that feed drinking water supplies for one in every three Americans; trying to stop us from cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.
We need a top cop on the environmental beat who will enforce our laws and protect our people, not someone who will go to court to fight for the polluters.
Pruitt ducked and dodged questions about the campaign contributions—more than $300,000 and counting—he’s taken from oil, gas, and coal companies. He had no answer to questions about the millions of dollars this same industry has pumped into the Republican Attorney Generals Association, where Pruitt plays a leading role, or to various political action committees that support him. And he had no answers about a least $1 million more in contributions to that group’s dark money affiliate, the Rule of Law Defense Fund, where Pruitt has been an officer.
While providing no transparency on this vast and secretive network of cash in exchange for political influence and state-sanctioned advocacy, Pruitt repeatedly rose to the defense of the fossil-fuel industry. And he conceded he did nothing as Oklahoma’s top law enforcer to address oil and gas operations that on his watch turned his state into one of the most active earthquake zones in the country.
“I’ve acknowledged that I’m concerned,” Pruitt said, after Senator Bernie Sanders asked what he had done as attorney general in response to the problem.
“Your state’s having a record-breaking number of earthquakes, you acknowledge you are concerned, if that’s the kind of EA administrator you will be, you’re not going to get my vote,” Sanders replied.
We can all pound a gavel to that.
Pruitt allowed that human activity is contributing to climate change “in some manner” but said there is “continuing debate” about the impact. As he spoke, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that we just wrapped up the hottest year since global record-keeping began in 1880. That’s the third year in a row we’ve broken the record. In fact, of the 17 hottest years on record, 16 have occurred in this century.
We need an EPA chief who understands the central environmental challenge of our time, not someone who wants to read off industry talking points meant to keep us from taking action.
What Pruitt’s confirmation hearing actually confirmed is that he’s the wrong man to lead the EPA—unless the goal is to cripple the agency’s ability to protect our environment and health.
And that, for some, is clearly the goal.
Pruitt’s fellow Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe—the most vocal climate change denier in the Senate—said he is counting on the nominee to roll back “a radical environmental agenda,” by which, of course, he means eight years of climate and clean energy leadership.
Scott Pruitt doesn’t have a single environmental accomplishment to his name that might suggest he’s qualified to become the nation’s top guardian of our environment and health. And his support comes from big polluters and their political allies who are devoted to reducing this vital agency to a toothless remnant.
Presidents nominate their cabinet. The Constitution gives the Senate a voice in that cabinet, though, through its advice and consent role. It’s a solemn duty that exists for one reason: to protect the country against nominees who are unfit to serve—nominees like Scott Pruitt.