Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has been tapped to run the Environmental Protection Agency in the Trump administration, multiple sources reported Wednesday.
Pruitt’s selection, while not a surprise, signifies a complete rethinking of the EPA. Environmental groups were appalled by the selection, saying it was a win for polluters and a loss for the American public.
As with so many of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet and transition staff, Pruitt does not accept the scientific consensus on climate change. As attorney general, Pruitt has routinely backed fossil fuel interests over those of environmental regulators and has rejected the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide, the leading contributor to human-caused climate change.
Pruitt’s ties to fossil fuel companies run deep. He received some $300,000 in fossil fuel money to support his campaign for attorney general.
In one instance, Pruitt used talking points from an energy company in a letter to the EPA, opposing air pollution standards for natural gas production. According to reporting from the New York Times, Devon Energy, an Oklahoma-based oil and gas company actually wrote the 2011 letter, which Pruitt submitted on state letterhead.
Oklahoma, under Pruitt, is one of the states that has sued to block the Clean Power Plan, an ambitious EPA regulation that seeks to curb emissions from power plants. Along with other Republican attorneys general, Pruitt attended private, high-dollar meetings with coal companies prior to joining the lawsuit.
“Every American should be appalled that President-elect Trump just picked someone who has made a career of being a vocal defender for polluters to head our Environmental Protection Agency,” Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen said in an emailed statement. “He has fought Environmental Protection Agency pollution limits on toxic substances like soot and mercury that put us all at risk for increased cancer, childhood asthma and other health problems. He falsely claims that fracking doesn’t contaminate drinking water supplies.”
The EPA is tasked with creating and enforcing the nation’s most important environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
Under President Obama, the EPA has released rules curbing the amount of methane that can leak from oil and gas production on public lands; creating the Clean Power Plan, which limits carbon emissions from power plants; limiting emissions from heavy-duty trucks; the Waters of the United States rule, which seeks to protect water sources connected to the freshwater supply of a third of Americans; and many other regulations that the agency says are based on the best possible scientific analysis.
In addition to crafting regulation, holding polluters accountable is one of the agency’s primary functions. EPA investigations have forced billions of dollars of fines in recent years.
The EPA has not operated without criticism during this time, though. The agency was slow to respond to a public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, where the community continues to suffer the effects of lead-contaminated water. Then, in 2015, while the EPA was doing site work on a former gold mine, the mine collapsed and released contaminated water down the Animas River in Colorado. The agency has also been criticized for issuing a vaguely worded study on the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing.
But while its efforts in those cases may have fallen short, the effort was made. It is hard to predict what environmental regulation Pruitt will chose to pursue as EPA head.
Though the EPA’s role is largely codified in law, much of this law is vague. Many of the EPA’s most powerful rules, such as the Clean Power Plan, were developed at the agency’s discretion, in an attempt to find the best way to limit carbon emissions, which it is required to do. These rules could be undone, reconsidered, or rolled back significantly by new leadership. Moreover, though many of these efforts to limit environmental regulation would likely be challenged in court, the Supreme Court will soon be controlled by Republicans once again, and thus is likely to go along with a deregulatory agenda.
Pruitt’s nomination is subject to Senate confirmation, which environmental groups urged against.
“Scott Pruitt running the EPA is like the fox guarding the henhouse,” League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski said in a statement. “The League of Conservation Voters strongly opposes this nomination and urges senators to vote against Scott Pruitt’s confirmation. All people in this country have a right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and enjoy the economic and health benefits of the clean energy revolution, and it’s vitally important that we have an EPA administrator who respects those rights.”