Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) described the climate change debate as "far from settled," a statement used repeatedly by Democratic senators and environmental activists in their efforts to sink his nomination to lead U.S. EPA.
Less known is that Pruitt co-wrote that phrase in an op-ed in National Review with Luther Strange, the new senator from Alabama who was state attorney general until yesterday morning.
Strange, who was appointed to fill the seat vacated by new U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, shares Pruitt’s views on climate, as well as his disdain for federal regulation. He moves abruptly from being a relative unknown to the national stage as he replaces one of President Trump’s most controversial nominees.
Alabama environmental advocates are not impressed by Strange’s record as the state’s top cop.
"Our hope is that he will see that federal partnership is important — our fear is that he’s going to continue his track record, which is to not place clean water protections as a high priority," said Mitch Reid, program director at the Alabama Rivers Alliance, a water resource nonprofit.
Reid called on Strange to oppose Pruitt’s nomination and to "buck the party line" on votes regarding climate change and emissions (see related story).
"Climate change is directly going to affect Mobile Bay and Mobile Delta, and that’s his responsibility now," he said.
But Strange has already indicated his stance on Pruitt. Strange was one of 24 state attorneys general to sign a letter to Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, advocating for Pruitt’s confirmation. Strange also served as a surrogate for Pruitt with the media at the Senate hearing on the Oklahoma attorney general’s nomination for EPA administrator.
"Every vote is going to have a direct impact on the water of Alabama and the health and safety of the people of the state," Reid said.
The new senator and former Division I basketball player at Tulane University — he’s known as "Big Luther" for his height — will sit on the Energy and Natural Resources, Agriculture, Armed Services, and Budget committees.
"I look forward to his contributions to make government more effective, efficient and accountable," Senate Budget Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said in a statement last night.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R), Alabama’s senior senator, will replace Sessions on the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Along with Pruitt, Strange was one of 27 state attorneys general to sue EPA over the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.
In a hearing on the plan in 2014, Strange said low-income consumers in his state "will ask why they must pay more to reduce CO2 emissions when those reductions cannot and will not impact the global climate." He argued EPA was exceeding its authority. The op-ed penned by Strange and Pruitt described the federal emissions reduction measures as "governmental intimidation."
Strange also joined 23 other attorneys general who penned a letter to the Trump transition team and congressional leaders in December laying out how they would like to attack the Clean Power Plan through a combination of executive actions, official rulemaking and new legislation.
"We recommend that Congress and the Administration work together to consider adopting legislation to address the issues giving rise to the Rule," the letter said. "We believe it is important to provide a longer-term legislative response to the Rule to ensure that similar or more extreme unlawful steps are not attempted by a future EPA."
Any such measure should recognize states’ right to develop their own energy strategies "in a cost-effective and environmentally responsible manner," the attorneys general said.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R), who worked with Strange on the Clean Power Plan case, said Strange has "cared passionately about challenging the EPA and other federal agencies when they cross the line."
He called Strange a "natural leader" and "quite thoughtful."
Morrisey said he is still awaiting executive action on the Clean Power Plan from the Trump administration and supports further legislative efforts so that the rule and measures like it "never again see the light of day."
Until his appointment to the Senate, Strange, 63, was chairman of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), which in recent years has focused on challenging federal authority. The group has faced criticism from environmentalists for raking in large contributions from fossil fuel companies through an associated nonprofit (E&E Daily, Jan. 9). Pruitt was formerly the leader of the group.
"We’re going to have to replenish our ranks," joked Morrisey, who will now head RAGA.
BP oil spill
State environmentalists did praise Strange for his work prosecuting BP PLC over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill that killed 11 workers and spewed millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
Strange was one of several Gulf Coast state attorneys general to bring the case to court. BP ultimately settled with the states for $18.7 billion in a landmark case, for which Alabama received about $2 billion for coastal ecosystem repair and economic damages.
The Alabama Rivers Alliance and Conservation Alabama, a prominent state-level environmental group, commended Strange for his prosecution of BP.
"The entire Gulf Coast was placed in jeopardy, and Attorney General Strange did exactly what he should have done and pursued the companies responsible to recoup the losses to the people of Alabama," Reid said.
But this was an isolated incident: Strange did not make a habit of prosecuting polluters using environmental protection laws, greens said.
"I wish he had taken that same enthusiasm for protecting the Gulf Coast and brought that into some ethic of protecting clean water," Reid said. "Unfortunately, we just did not see that during his tenure."
Strange enters office with an optics problem.
He was appointed by Gov. Robert Bentley (R), whom Strange was investigating for ethics violations. This fall, the attorney general asked the state Legislature to halt an impeachment investigation of the embattled governor to avoid conflicting inquiries.
Bentley was caught in a scandal involving an alleged affair with a former aide and a politically motivated firing of a state official who cooperated in a corruption prosecution of a state legislative leader.
Bentley now gets to appoint the next attorney general.
The circumstances of Strange’s appointment could become a campaign issue in 2018, when he is eligible to run to complete the final two years of Sessions’ Senate term. An election for a full six-year Senate term would then take place in 2020.
Reid suggested that if Strange wants to erase questions about how Bentley came to appoint him, he should avoid following the GOP party line on environmental protection and emissions votes.
"I hope he does better as senator than he did as attorney general with the environment," he said.
Reporter Emily Holden contributed.