Scott Pruitt will take the helm at the Environmental Protection Agency this week facing questions about his relationship with fossil fuels companies and a workforce that, at least in part, seems skeptical about his plans for the agency.
The former Oklahoma attorney general, who made his political mark by routinely challenging Obama-era EPA regulations in court, won confirmation to the post Friday, overcoming intense opposition from Democrats who sought to push the vote until later this month. It was a key win for President Trump, who has struggled to get many of his Cabinet nominees through the Senate, and for conservative critics of the EPA eager to see Mr. Pruitt roll back many of the climate change policies put in place over the past eight years.
But Mr. Pruitt’s tenure already is off to a rocky start. Some employees have publicly spoken out against their new boss, with one EPA lawyer telling The New York Times last week that it appears Mr. Trump and Mr. Pruitt are undertaking a “complete reversal” of decades of agency policy.
Mr. Pruitt will address the EPA workforce in a highly anticipated speech Tuesday afternoon. In his remarks he’s likely to lay out his vision for the agency, which includes rolling back the Clean Power Plan — a set of limits on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants — and a host of other regulations.
Tuesday’s event, however, potentially could be overshadowed by a trove of emails set to be released the same day. An Oklahoma judge last week ordered Mr. Pruitt to turn over by Tuesday nearly 3,000 emails involving his communications with the oil-and-gas sector.
Democrats argue those documents will show collusion with fossil fuels companies, and they urged Republican leaders in the Senate to delay his confirmation vote until the emails were made public.
Their stalling tactics ultimately failed, but Democratic lawmakers warned their GOP colleagues that they may regret their votes to confirm Mr. Pruitt once they see what’s in the messages.
“Be careful about the vote you cast 1:00 today, because by 1:00 on Tuesday or Wednesday in the following week, you may regret that vote,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said on the chamber floor Friday morning. “The Republican senators and Mitch McConnell said we don’t want to read [the emails]. We don’t care what’s in them. Scott Pruitt can wait 10 days, and we can wait for the truth, can’t we?”
Hours later Mr. Pruitt was confirmed by a Senate vote of 52-46.
The vote broke largely along party lines, though two Democrats — Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota — backed Mr. Pruitt.
Republican Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine voted against him, saying she does not believe he’s fit to head the EPA. She was the only member of the GOP caucus to vote against Mr. Pruitt.
In explaining her decision, she echoed the concerns of many Democrats and environmentalists: that Mr. Pruitt can’t be trusted to protect the environment.
“His actions leave me with considerable doubts about whether his vision for the EPA is consistent with the agency’s critical mission to protect human health and the environment,” she said last week.
Republican leaders in the Senate brushed off those concerns and Democrats’ call for a delay. They said critics merely wanted to deny Mr. Trump the help he needs in the federal government by holding up a vote on Mr. Pruitt.
“These delays are all about obstruction. They’re all about denying President Trump his Cabinet,” said Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican and chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “That’s what this is all about. It’s about pretending their candidate, Hillary Clinton, didn’t lose the election in November.”
In raising concerns about what could be in the emails, Democrats point to a 2011 letter sent by Mr. Pruitt to the EPA, raising questions about the agency’s conclusions regarding harmful emissions from natural gas wells. The majority of the language in the letter was lifted directly from documents written by Devon Energy, an Oklahoma oil company.
During testimony before a Senate panel last month, Mr. Pruitt didn’t deny using the company’s language, but said it was his job as Oklahoma attorney general to advocate on behalf of his state’s interests, including the interests of major industries in the state like the oil-and-gas sector.
Democrats have blasted Mr. Pruitt’s logic in that particular situation and believe the looming email trove will show other examples of collusion between the two sides.
While it’s unclear what’s in the emails, oil-and-gas companies clearly believe they now have an ally as EPA administrator.
“Mr. Pruitt understands the critical importance of implementing policies that both support our economy and protect the environment,” Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said in a statement after Friday’s vote, in one example of the universal positive reaction across the oil-and-gas industry to Mr. Pruitt’s confirmation.