- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2017

As he seeks to lead the agency he’s spent years fighting in court, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt came under intense fire Wednesday from Democrats who tried to paint him as a climate change denier and a shill for the fossil fuels industry.

Mr. Pruitt, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, told lawmakers during Wednesday’s confirmation hearing that he believes global warming is real and stressed that the EPA has a key role to play in ensuring Americans have clean air and water.

But the controversial nominee — who has led numerous lawsuits against the EPA’s climate change agenda and admitted he’s sometimes fought on behalf of the oil-and-gas sector — also said the agency has wildly overstepped its bounds over the past eight years and must be reined in.

The proceedings were disrupted at least twice by environmental protesters who warned that Mr. Pruitt will “gut” the EPA, underscoring the deep opposition around the selection. For his part, Mr. Pruitt rejected the notion that fossil fuel exploration is incompatible with environmental protection, and he said his chief role atop the EPA would be to ensure that the right balance is struck.

“This country has shown for decades that we can grow our economy and be a good steward of our air, land and water, and we need to get back to that,” he told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Mr. Pruitt said he disagrees with Mr. Trump’s past claim that climate change is a “hoax” and also said he believes man has played a role in warming the planet. But he also said his personal opinion on global warming is “immaterial” and that it would be his job as EPA administrator to protect the environment, not lead a worldwide effort to stop rising temperatures.

That position drew scorn from some lawmakers who prefer the Obama administration’s laserlike focus on climate change.

“If that’s the kind of EPA administrator you will be, then you’re not going to get my vote,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent.

Mr. Pruitt, 48, who has been a leading thorn in the side of the EPA for the last six years, has vowed to undo many of the agency’s climate change actions quickly upon taking office.

If confirmed, his chief target will be the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, a set of federal regulations that greatly restricts carbon emissions from power plants and specifically was designed to reduce the use of coal for electricity generation.

Mr. Pruitt joined other Republican attorneys general from across the country in challenging the plan in court, and the Supreme Court last year put the entire proposal on hold.

Republicans are still eager to formally undo the regulations. Working with the Trump White House, Mr. Pruitt’s EPA is expected to immediately begin the lengthy, complex legal process of scrapping the Clean Power Plan.

He’s also brought legal challenges against EPA regulations on mercury pollution, ozone standards, carbon dioxide emissions and on other matters.

“The EPA has not acted within the framework Congress has established in performing the role it is supposed to perform,” he said Wednesday in explaining his rationale behind the lawsuits.

But Democrats argue he’s had a different motivation — to protect his allies in the oil-and-gas industry.

“You used your office as a direct extension of an oil company rather than a direct extension of the public health of the people of Oklahoma,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, Oregon Democrat, referring to a 2011 letter Mr. Pruitt sent to the EPA charging that the agency had greatly overestimated the air pollution caused by natural gas drilling.

Much of the language in the letter appears to have been written by Devon Energy, a leading Oklahoma oil-and-gas company. Mr. Pruitt didn’t dispute using some of the company’s language, but shot back that his role as attorney general was to represent the interests of his state against an overzealous federal government that sought to cripple oil-and-gas drilling.

“That was an effort that was protecting the state’s interest,” he said. “It was particular to an industry. … There was concern expressed by that industry.”

Moving forward, Mr. Pruitt said he would recuse himself from any EPA actions related to the lawsuits he’s filed if the agency’s ethics counsel deems it necessary.

Wednesday’s hearing was the second in a series focused on Mr. Trump’s energy and environment team. On Tuesday Rep. Ryan K. Zinke, nominated to lead the Interior Department, appeared before a Senate committee. And on Thursday former Texas Gov. Rick Perry will be on Capitol Hill as he seeks to become the next energy secretary.

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