Many of incoming President Donald Trump's cabinet nominees have been called risky, unconventional, or unqualified picks. Scott Pruitt is none of those things. But there is little uncertainty in how the Oklahoma attorney general will manage the Environmental Protection Agency. His confirmation hearing earlier today, then, was an ideological fight for the future of the agency, and America's role in preserving the Earth.
Democratic opposition to Pruitt required little more than reciting his record. Pruitt has sued the EPA 14 separate times, almost always on behalf of large corporations that donated to his political campaigns or his political action committees. He has litigated nearly every regulation the EPA has enacted in recent memory; he disputes whether mercury is dangerous for humans; when questioned in the hearing, couldn't decide how much lead was OK for children to drink in tap water; and is a climate change denier. When Pruitt took over as attorney general in Oklahoma in 2011, the budget for that office's environmental enforcement group went from $486,000 to zero.
"He's kind of covered the full spectrum of EPA law in suits that he's chosen to bring," Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney with the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit dedicated to environmental protection told me on a phone call. "He's challenged the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and its implementation under other statutes."
Of the 14 cases Pruitt has brought, seven have been resolved. Six he has lost.
Articulating a tight narrative of Pruitt's record is easy. At every turn, he has favored corporations over people and the environment. Pruitt, at the helm of the EPA, will not direct in the spirit of "environmental protection," he will run an agency that will get out of the way of fossil fuel corporations in the interest of preserving their economic power.
Pruitt and his Republican allies in the Senate said that, as director of the agency, he will make sure regulations are clear for businesses and will only enforce them as strictly spelled out by Congress. He says that under his direction, businesses—particularly fossil fuel companies, which he thinks have been unfairly victimized—won't be hampered by regulatory overreach, and thousands of coal miners in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and other Rust Belt states will keep their jobs. This is the narrative, at least; closer inspection shows that regulations often cause concentrated, localized job losses but do not have a large impact on the overall job economy.
"Rule of law matters, process matters," Pruitt said. "Regulators are supposed to make things regular, not pick winners and losers … federalism matters."
"In all of these cases, you filed lawsuits joining with polluting companies that were also suing the EPA"
Pruitt said in the hearing that he believes the EPA should exist, but should generally only oversee issues that cut across state lines, such as air-quality issues that originate in one state but cross into another. The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act—both of which he has challenged—are widely seen as some of the most important pieces of environmental legislation ever passed, and have been instrumental in reducing pollution around the United States.
There is nothing inherently wrong or evil about challenging regulatory overreach if that is indeed what's happening. Rule of law does matter. But as attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt didn't respect rule of law, and fought against regulations that under his stated criteria, he should have supported. Suing the EPA is not inherently bad and does not inherently make one an enemy of the environment. Suing the EPA, repeatedly losing, and then continuing to preach that the agency has ignored the rule of law, however, suggests a cynical motivation for litigation.
And he has lost the vast majority of his cases against the EPA. (During Wednesday's hearing, California Sen. Kamala Harris noted that of the 14 cases Pruitt has brought, seven have been resolved. "Six you have lost," she said. "You're a lover of baseball, what's your batting average? It's .142."). In one case, EME Homer City Generation v. EPA, he brought a case only after the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the EPA. In that lawsuit, he was challenging the Cross State Air Pollution Rule, which, as the name suggests, regulates companies who pollute across state lines.
The truth is that environmental regulations can economically hurt the companies that ignore them, but it's often cheaper to donate money to friendly lawmakers and attorneys general and have them fight a legal battle than it is to actually make operations more environmentally sustainable. Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse made the following chart to depict some of Pruitt's donors:
"In all of these cases, you filed lawsuits joining with polluting companies that were also suing the EPA," New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker told Pruitt. Booker then noted that Oklahoma has an above-average rate of childhood asthma, which can be tied to air quality. "You were representing the industry and the polluters. Did you file even one lawsuit on behalf of those kids?"
Pruitt's environmental "achievements" as attorney general are shams: When Harris asked how many times Pruitt had brought a lawsuit against an Oklahoma-based company for violating state environmental laws, he had to pull a piece of paper out to remember any.
"Almost everything he said about the environment was about the suits he brought against the EPA on behalf of the polluters"
The enforcement action he cited—an action against Mahard Egg Farm, which was polluting water—was initiated by his predecessor, not by Pruitt himself. And a "historic agreement" he cited between Oklahoma and Arkansas focused on improving phosphorous levels in drinking water was actually a delay in enforcing water quality standards from 2012 to 2016.
"What he did was bought more time for polluters," Benesh said. "It's not a historic achievement, or even a small achievement. It's not an achievement."
"The way he talks about his own accomplishments—almost everything he said about the environment was about the suits he brought against the EPA on behalf of the polluters, and not about actions he was taking to protect the environment in his own state," Benesh added.
He received plaudits from Republican lawmakers for "suing the fossil fuel industry" by going after ConocoPhillips. But that was a fraud case, not an environmental one—the oil company was stealing money from a state cleanup fund after having already been paid out by an insurance company.
The ConocoPhillips lawsuit "has nothing to do with the environment," Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said.
With Pruitt at the helm, the Environmental Protection Agency will have nothing to do with the environment, either.