Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt may be a climate change denier, but that alone won’t derail his nomination to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. So when confirmation hearings for President-elect Donald Trump’s controversial pick begin on January 18, you can expect to hear a lot about mercury. It’s part of a larger strategy by Senate Democrats to frame his nomination as the culmination of a cynical, years-long attack on science and reason whose purpose was to protect the interests of the fossil fuel industry—and his own.
Opposing mercury pollution is a no-brainer. Its harms include serious damage to the nervous, pulmonary, digestive, and immune systems and developmental brain defects. In 2011, after years of study, the EPA limited how much mercury oil-fired and coal-fired power plants can emit. The agency’s Mercury and Toxic Air Standards (MATS) will save thousands of lives and prevent an estimated 11,000 premature births a year. Great, right? Not according to Pruitt, who joined more than 20 states in suing to block the rule—an appeal that was ultimately declined by the Supreme Court last summer, leaving the rule in place.
For Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the Democrats’ ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, mercury is a great example of why Pruitt should not head the EPA.
“Scott Pruitt’s views are so far out of the mainstream that confirming him as the head of the EPA would be a mistake,” Carper told the New Republic. To vet Pruitt’s extreme views, he and committee Chairman John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, have discussed holding longer-than-usual hearings for the nominee—one to two days as opposed to the half-day that is customary for cabinet-level appointments. Carper is also planning on bringing in an outside expert panel to focus, in part, on mercury.
For Senate Democrats, who insist the confirmation is not a foregone conclusion, the hearings are a chance to show that Pruitt is a prosecutor with an inherent conflict of interest with the EPA’s mission to defend human health and the environment. According to Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Pruitt would be a “historical outlier” among both Republican and Democrat EPA administrators, who would shred rather than faithfully administer the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.
Pruitt has sued the EPA fourteen times, with at least eight active lawsuits against the agency, and has deep financial ties to fossil fuel companies that would win big if the suits were ruled in their favor. Democrats could frame a Senate vote for Pruitt as a vote for corrupt special interests and against science.
Republicans say the claim is nonsense. Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, pointed to mercury as an example of why Pruitt is “an ideal candidate to look at the real-world consequences of the agency’s regulatory actions.” Capito portrayed MATS as an illegal, Congress-bypassing rule that cost crucial jobs in her state, part of what she claimed was an intentional effort by President Barack Obama to undermine the coal industry.
Other Republican Senators on the EPW Committee did not respond to requests for interview. But based on their past statements, Pruitt’s Republican supporters on the committee, like Barrasso and the vocal climate change denier Jim Inhofe, believe Pruitt is the right candidate to end Obama-era overreach. Without apparent irony, Capito described Pruitt as “a breath of fresh air.”
“It’s nuts,” said Schatz. “The idea that the right person to run the EPA is the person who has made a career undermining it defies logic, unless you want to undermine the EPA.”
Carper compared the notion to hiring the mastermind behind Russian cyber-attacks against the U.S. to head U.S. cyber-security.
Still, it’s clear Senate Democrats cannot confine themselves to mercury’s harms alone. Instead, they must show a gaping chasm between Pruitt’s motives and the EPA’s mandate, which rests on the idea that when enough scientific evidence of a harm exists, the federal government must act quickly to avert it, economic costs and regulatory hassles for fossil fuel interests aside.
To do so, Senate Democrats will attempt to trace a trail of “dark money” between energy companies and Pruitt as he waged legal war on Obama’s EPA.
In a letter sent in December, five committee Democrats and Senator Bernie Sanders grilled Pruitt on his connection to Oklahoma oil and gas giant Devon Energy, whose talking points Pruitt parroted in a letter to the EPA. This revelation was part of a 2014 New York Times investigation that found links between Republican attorneys general and energy companies, which gave $16 million to their campaigns. The senators also demanded that Pruitt reveal all the anonymous donors behind the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a 501(c)(4) group he helped create and is linked to the Republican Attorneys General Association. Supported by Freedom Partners, which funds causes championed by the Koch brothers, the Fund has worked to combat various Democratic initiatives, from instituting overtime laws to implementing the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.
In another letter, Carper questioned Pruitt about his ties to two super PACs funded by fossil fuel interests that, at the time of his EPA nomination, were staffed by key personnel from his 2014 reelection campaign.
“We should not have a fossil fuel puppet in the office directing the EPA,” said Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon.
Pruitt has since stepped down as chairman of the Rule of Law Defense Fund and closed down the PACs, presumably to address these concerns, but Senate Democrats will likely pursue these ties—particularly since a new secretive PAC was recently created to protect Pruitt’s appointment from “anti-business, anti-environmental extremists,” E&E News and Politico reported.
“The question of the financial entanglements between Mr. Pruitt and the fossil fuel industry is a very critical element of exploring the conflict of interest that his candidacy likely represents,” said Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who is on the committee.
Democratic senators also said they will be questioning Pruitt on his beliefs on human-caused climate change. Pruitt has been widely described as a climate change denier, partly based on an op-ed he co-wrote with Alabama Attorney General Lester Strange in which he described the science of climate change as “far from settled” and the subject of “debate.” Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, defending him from the charge, wrote that Pruitt “supports a robust discussion” about climate change.
But this rhetoric about “debate” and “discussion” is climate change denial, as scientists overwhelmingly agree that human-caused climate change is happening. “The only debate about climate change is whether sea level rise will be large or very large, and storms severe or very severe,” said Rush Holt, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) and a physicist who served in the House of Representatives. “The debate is not about anything that is relevant to policy.”
“If you are to head up the agency that is sworn to head up the effort to reduce morbidity and protect human welfare, there is no responsible action other than taking strong steps to control climate change at its source,” Holt added.
Instead, Pruitt joined 26 states in challenging the EPA’s greenhouse gas–cutting Clean Power Plan, which is the United States’s main (and potentially only) way to reach its goals outlined by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Trump has promised to destroy the plan, which is currently held up in courts.
For Martin Hayden of the environmental law firm Earthjustice, the question of what Pruitt personally believes about climate change pales compared to his actions: “His actions have all been about stopping action on climate change. His actions will be about undoing action in climate change.”
Framing Pruitt primarily as a climate change denier carries risks. Even while Republican voters increasingly believe in climate change, the Republican Party position is increasingly dubious. While the 2008 party platform acknowledged human activity contributed to carbon in the atmosphere, the 2016 platform did not, instead framing the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as “a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution” that displays “intolerance toward scientists and others who dissent from its orthodoxy.”
Seen through this lens, climate change is a hysteria-fueled excuse for federal government overreach that threatens good fossil fuel jobs based on a global conspiracy of climate scientists—an unlikely message that has been extremely powerful.
Only a handful of Senate Republicans have strayed from this public position. During a 2015 debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, climate hawk Schatz introduced an amendment declaring that humans contributed significantly to climate change. Every Democrat voted yay, along with just five Republicans, three of whom remain in the Senate: Susan Collins of Maine, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
To block Pruitt’s nomination, the Democrats need to find four votes from Republicans, since Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, up for reelection in the coal state of West Virginia in 2018, has announced he’s for Pruitt. Collins, Alexander, and Graham have not publicly stated how they will vote. So Senate Democrats, while targeting Pruitt’s views on climate change, are not staking the vote on that alone.
“I don’t expect the view on the nominee to come down to climate change,” said Senator Carper. “Instead it’s, ‘Does he believe that the agency should be guided by science? What are his views on particulate matter and haze?’” He said that he understands several Republicans are concerned about “the nominee’s lack of embrace of science,” and that members who might not care about sea level rise might “be concerned about mercury.”
For Senate Democrats, the best option is to frame a vote for Pruitt as part of a larger, more insidious problem at work behind his nomination: the denial of science and reason when they conflict with economic interests. In Pruitt’s case those interests are personal. Senator Whitehouse said it could be tough for even Republican senators to confirm “a person who denies all of that and takes that much money from fossil fuel industry at the same time.”