On Wednesday, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt underwent his confirmation hearing to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. It was a complete mess, occasionally punctuated by the distractingly bright posters and the shouts of protestors just outside the hearing room.
His exchange with Senator Bernie Sanders was like watching a fever dream.
“Why is the climate changing?” Sanders asked him. “I’m asking your personal opinion.”
“My personal opinion is immaterial,” Pruitt said.
“Really?” Sanders continued. “You are gonna be the head of the agency to protect the environment, and your personal opinions about whether climate change is caused by human activity and carbon emissions is immaterial?”
Senator Bernie Sanders continued his questioning, and Pruitt continued saying he only believed human activity “impacted,” as opposed to “caused,” climate change.
“If that’s the kind of administer for the EPA administer you would be,” Sen. Sanders said, “you’re not gonna get my vote.”
It’s hard to overstate just how utterly bizarre it is to pick Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA in the first place. For starters, he’s sued the organization 14 times over the last six years and lost nearly every case. One is still in litigation. He’s promised “regulatory rollback” for the organization, and in his Linkedin bio he calls himself a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”
As part of his campaign against the EPA, Pruitt opposed the provisions of the Clean Air Act and Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, saying it was an example of government overreach. Senator Cory Booker pressed Pruitt on this, connecting his anti-EPA suits to the high occurrence of childhood asthma in Oklahoma, where 1 in 10 suffer from the disease. Why hasn’t Pruitt filed suit on their behalf?
“Each of these lawsuits... challenge attempts by the EPA to reduce air pollution,” Sen. Booker said. “In all of them except one, you filed those lawsuits joining with polluting companies that were also suing the EPA. It’s clear that you’ve worked very hard on behalf of these industries.”
Pruitt said he couldn’t sue companies without cause. “The state has to have an interest before it can bring those cases, as you know,” Pruitt said. “You can’t just bring lawsuits if you don’t have standing if there’s not been some injury to the state of Oklahoma.”
Booker, like all of us, was taken aback by this.
“Injury?” Booker asked incredulously. “Clearly asthma is triggered and caused by air pollutants. Clearly there’s an air pollution problem. And the fact that you have not brought suits against the industries that are causing the pollution is really problematic when you’re gonna sit in a position that is nationally gonna be affecting this reality.”
To clarify, Pruitt’s saying that yes, air pollution causes asthma, but no, high asthma cases aren’t a result of environmental deregulation or corporate wrongdoing.
Another dramatic moment happened when Senator Sheldon Whitehouse pulled a Bernie, using a poster to emphasize a number of fossil fuel organizations and companies that have either funded Pruitt or for whom Pruitt has raised money.
Whitehouse pointed out that Pruitt has yet to release complete financial records on some of these organizations and further, while Pruitt was an executive member of the Republican Attorney General’s Association, it received more than $530,000 from the oil rich Koch Industries and $160,000 from Exxon Mobile. Pruitt implied there was no connection.
When asked, Pruitt said, “I did not ask Koch for money.”
In general, Pruitt’s finances are a serious issue of contention. Although he swore he had no ongoing conflicts of interest, Pruitt reportedly received $215,000 in donations from executives within the energy industry. The New York Times reports that Pruitt received $40,000 from poultry executives during his campaign for attorney general, later choosing not to renew a 2003 agreement that compelled poultry plants to reduce water pollution from poultry plants.
There are points where Pruitt came across both as patently unqualified and shamelessly unethical, particularly when he refused to answer simple questions. The whole thing was disappointing, but not the least bit surprising. On the upside, Pruitt said he’s disagrees that global warming is a Chinese hoax. So at least there’s that.
Correction: 1/18/2017 3pm EST: The previous version of this story misidentified the senator who brought the poster of Pruitt’s financial contributions. It is Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, not Senator Jeff Merkley. (h/t Grace Harvey)
Update 2/1/2017 12 pm EST: The Washington Post is reporting that Democrats boycotted Pruitt’s committee confirmation vote hearing Wednesday, forcing it to be rescheduled. It’s currently unclear when the new vote will be held. In a prepared statement, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, who supported the boycott, said Pruitt needs to provide more robust explanations of his financial ties fossil fuel companies and pending lawsuits.
If he cannot answer the multitude of questions we’ve asked about his record and views, neither we nor the American people can have confidence that Pruitt is working to keep air and water clean, rather than protecting the profits of polluters.
Update 2/2/2017 11 pm EST: CNN reports Thursday that Republicans have “suspended committee rules” and bypassed the boycott. Pruitt was approved and will advance to the Senate floor for final confirmation.