Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma Attorney General, has been confirmed as the next EPA Administrator. A polluter lobbyist is not qualified to keep our air and water clean. Here’s what you should know about Pruitt and the agency he will head:
Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0
What is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and what does it do?
It is the federal agency responsible for writing and enforcing regulations to protect public health and the environment. The EPA's publicly stated mission is “to ensure that all Americans are protected from significant risks to human health and the environment where they live, learn and work.”
The EPA handles ground, water and air pollution, as well as pollution containment and prevention. Most hazardous waste disposal also falls under EPA jurisdiction, including oil and chemical spills. One major EPA task is to create and enforce national standards that states and tribes often use as guidance to enforce through their own rules. However, the EPA does not handle all environmental concerns, as some issues are primarily concerns of other federal, tribal, state, or local agencies.
This is how the EPA affects your life:
1. Through the Clean Air Act, the EPA dictates national air quality standards to control pollutants coming from industry and other sources that are harmful to people and the environment.
The more stringent the standards are, the cleaner the air we breathe. To manage air pollution levels, the EPA is tasked with ensuring that states have plans in place to maintain or attain appropriate air quality. In 2015, the EPA unveiled the Clean Power Plan, a flexible set of rules that call for reductions in carbon emissions from the electricity sector by 32 percent over 2005 levels in the next 15 years. The plan, which improves air quality and cuts down the emissions that cause global warming and ocean acidification, is on hold pending judicial review. The incoming Trump administration, as well as most Republicans in Congress, oppose the Clean Power Plan and want to dismantle it despite the benefits to public health and to mitigating the impacts of climate change.
2. Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA regulates discharges of pollutants into bodies of water and sets quality standards for surface waters.
The EPA makes sure industries or other entities release pollution into navigable waters only if a permit has been obtained. As with air quality, the more stringent the water standard, the cleaner the water the country has. The agency also ensures drinking water is safe, and restores and maintains oceans, watersheds, and their aquatic ecosystems. In 2015, the agency issued the Clean Water Rule, extending the federal government’s jurisdiction to protect streams, including seasonal ones that flow into navigable rivers, and also to wetlands located near these streams or rivers. The Trump administration said it will roll back this rule.
3. The EPA is an investigative and research body that releases information on emissions, industry pollution, or chemicals to warn the public about risks.
In doing so, they also update previously issued information with the latest scientific research to make sure rules reflect current knowledge about environmental threats. For example, the EPA is now conducting a review on whether hydraulic fracturing, a method of extracting gas or oil by thrusting sand and chemicals into shale rock, is a risk to groundwater resources across the country. The EPA also conducts and supervises investigation and clean-up actions at sites where oil or other toxic chemicals have been released or could be released.
What does the EPA Administrator do?
The Administrator heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Although the EPA is not a Cabinet-level agency, the EPA Administrator traditionally sits alongside the 15 Secretaries in the President's Cabinet. The EPA Administrator position has no fixed term length.
How is Earthjustice’s work impacted by the EPA?
Earthjustice needs robust environmental rules to hold violators accountable in court and ensure public health and the environment are protected. Earthjustice works with the EPA and challenges the EPA to make sure that rules safeguarding our air, water, and environment are revised when needed, or kept strong when challenged by industry. New sources of pollution are constantly emerging and given the reality that climate change is worsening at an alarming rate, a bold EPA led by an environmentally responsible administrator is essential to keeping our air clean, our water clear, and our environment safe.
Who is Scott Pruitt?
Pruitt has been the attorney general of Oklahoma since 2010. He served in the state senate from 1998 to 2006. Prior to joining the state senate, he was a lawyer in private practice. He unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor in 2006.
Pruitt filed the first lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act in court and considers the EPA to have an excessively activist agenda. Pruitt is currently leading a multistate challenge to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The Act seeks to tighten restrictions on banks following the Great Recession of 2008.
Pruitt has received nearly $315,000 from the fossil fuel industry since 2002. The New York Times, in an investigative article, named Pruitt as part of a group of Republican attorneys general with “an unprecedented, secretive alliance” with the nation’s largest energy companies. Attorneys for energy companies, according to the Times, wrote letters for Pruitt to send to the EPA, the Interior Department, the Office of Management and Budget and President Obama. Pruitt sees the EPA and other federal agencies under the Obama administration as “driven by an anti-fossil fuel agenda.”
Contributions in the range of $500,000 to secure Pruitt’s confirmation are being solicited by a new group known as Protecting America Now, whose status allows it to keep individual and corporate donors anonymous. Industry stands to reap massive profits should Pruitt head the very agency that oversees their activities. This new group joins several fossil fuel-funded pro-Pruitt PACs. “During his tenure as Attorney General of Oklahoma, Mr. Pruitt has blurred the distinction between official and political actions, often at the behest of corporations he will regulate if confirmed to lead EPA,” said Senate Democrats in a Jan. 12 letter to the Office of Government Ethics. “Public reporting based on documents produced by Freedom of Information Act requests illustrate how Mr. Pruitt and members of his staff have worked closely with fossil fuel lobbyists to craft his office's official positions.”
What is Scott Pruitt's record on environmental protection?
Scott Pruitt is a climate-change denier with a record of opposing rules that cut emissions from polluters. He is concerned with limiting the regulatory authority of the federal government, which he considers “intrusive.”
In an op-ed in May 2016, Pruitt questioned the science around climate change, erroneously arguing that the link between global warming and human activity is unclear. (A month earlier, a peer-reviewed paper authored by researchers from multiple institutions, including Harvard and Princeton, confirmed that, according to six independent studies, 90 to 100 percent of publishing climate scientists agree that the planet is warming due to human activity. A previous paper from 2013, based on 11,944 abstracts of research papers, found a 97% consensus.)
The state of Oklahoma, under Pruitt’s leadership, joined the multistate legal battle challenging the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which imposes limits on carbon emissions, the main driver of climate change. Pruitt has referred to the rule as “unlawful and overreaching” and complained that the Clean Power Plan would close coal-fired plants. He believes the EPA has overstepped its authority and interferes with the rights of states to devise their own energy policies.
In 2010, Pruitt challenged the Obama administration’s plans to reduce haze in southwestern Oklahoma by requiring new pollution control equipment. (Haze, largely the result of burning fossil fuels, is a mix of particulates and toxic gases, and especially dangerous for vulnerable groups, such as children, senior citizens and people with breathing problems like asthma.)
In 2011, Pruitt opposed methane regulations. (A primary constituent of natural gas, methane is the second-biggest driver of climate change after carbon dioxide. Methane is emitted alongside ozone-forming pollution associated with unhealthy levels of smog.)
In 2014, Pruitt criticized the EPA for attempting to link fracking with groundwater contamination.
This year, Pruitt joined other attorney generals in battling the Security and Exchange Commission’s efforts to beef up climate change disclosure requirements. Pruitt also defended Exxon Mobil Corp. against probes from the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York into the oil company's track record on climate change. He has opposed the listing of endangered species by federal agencies as interfering with oil and gas development.
What’s been happening in the EPA Administrator selection process?
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works handled the EPA Administrator nomination. The EPA Administrator is confirmed by a simple majority of the full Senate. (The vote cannot be filibustered due to a change in rules by Democrats in 2013 that Republicans are expected to adopt in January.) Republicans currently hold 51 seats.
The committee hearing on Pruitt's nomination was held on Jan. 18. Senators on the Environment & Public Works Committee questioned Pruitt on his record and his positions, giving the American public an opportunity to fully understand the impact that a Pruitt-led EPA will have on public health and the environment. (Watch key moments from the hearing.) On Feb. 2, Republican lawmakers took the extraordinary step of suspending committee rules, voting to advance Pruitt’s nomination. Democratic EPW committee members boycotted the Feb. 2 and Feb. 1 votes because of Pruitt’s failure to respond to document requests, his lack of substantive responses to questions raised during his hearing, and his refusal to clarify whether he will recuse himself from work on regulations and issues where he has a direct conflict of interest.
The vote by the full Senate on Pruitt's nomination was held on Feb. 17. He was confirmed along a mostly party-line vote of 52–46. (See how your senators voted.)
Did individuals have a voice in this process?
Yes. In the weeks since Scott Pruitt was announced as the Trump administration's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, concerned members of the public and hundreds of organizations across the country spoke out against Scott Pruitt's nomination, highlighting Pruitt's open record of hostility towards the essential purpose and functions of the EPA and urging their senators to vote against Pruitt's confirmation.