Scott Pruitt, President-elect Donald Trump's choice to lead U.S. EPA, faced a barrage of questions from Democrats at his confirmation hearing today before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
The Oklahoma Republican attorney general is an aggressive critic of EPA, often leading litigation against the agency over its regulations, notably the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule. As his state's top lawyer, he has been considered close to Oklahoma's oil and gas industry, from which he has received contributions for campaigns and political committees tied to him.
Democrats sought to exploit Pruitt's ties to fossil fuel interests, hammering him for what they say will be conflicts of interest if he becomes EPA administrator.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) noted that Pruitt served as an officer for the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a nonprofit group that has challenged EPA and doesn't have to disclose its donors.
"It is a complete black hole that at least a million dollars goes," Whitehouse said.
Whitehouse's staff held up a chart showing a nexus between Pruitt and the energy industry, showing lines representing political contributions going to his campaigns, super PACs and other outside groups, such as the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA).
Pressed by Whitehouse, Pruitt said, "I have not asked them [energy companies] for money on behalf of RAGA."
The hearing is being held in a packed room with a line for spectators snaking outside down the hall and around the corner.
Early into the hearing, there were cries of protesters in the hall. Each time the door opened, the noise would creep in, with one protester yelling, "Pruitt takes money from oil companies!"
Several protesters did make it into the hearing room. Police removed a few who disrupted the proceedings.
Committee Democrats were often angry or dismissive of Pruitt in their rapid-fire questioning. In turn, Republicans often gave up some speaking time to Pruitt so he could clarify his answers to prior queries from Democrats.
Several Democrats focused their attention on Pruitt's office sending a letter to EPA critical of its methane rule in 2011. That letter was copied almost word for word from text sent by lawyers for Devon Energy Corp.
"You sent it without questions," Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told Pruitt.
Pruitt sought to defend the letter, arguing he was representing his state's interests before a federal agency.
"It was sent not on behalf of one company," Pruitt said. "It was sent on behalf of industry."
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) also repeatedly asked Pruitt whether he would recuse himself from his state's still-pending lawsuits against EPA. The Oklahoma attorney general dodged that question, much to Markey's frustration.
"EPA is for all the people of the United States, not just the fossil fuel industry of Oklahoma," Markey said.
Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) jumped in and asked Pruitt, "Would you fully follow the advice of the EPA ethics counsel?"
"Yes, I will, chairman," Pruitt said.
Views on climate change
Pruitt also addressed the issue of climate change at the hearing, telling Markey in response to one of his questions, "I do not believe climate change is a hoax."
That runs counter to a well-known 2012 tweet from Trump where he said climate change was created by the Chinese to hurt U.S. manufacturing.
Pruitt's position on climate change was more nuanced earlier in the hearing. In his opening statement, the Oklahoma attorney general said the degree in which human activity is causing climate change is "subject to continuing debate and dialogue, as well as it should be."
Pruitt also said in his opening statement that he thought he could balance the needs of the environment and the economy. He described a "false paradigm" that one cannot be pro-energy and pro-environment.
"I thoroughly reject that narrative," Pruitt said.
He also sought to emphasize he would follow the law at EPA. "The law is static, not transient," he said.
Pruitt also touted his belief in states' rights, saying EPA would need them as partners to protect the environment.
Also in response to Democrats' concerns that Trump would attempt to do away with EPA, Pruitt said the agency has a "very important role" and a "very valuable role."
Republicans praised Pruitt often. In particular, Barrasso said he would submit several of letters of support for Pruitt into the record between senators' questions.
Introducing him to the committee, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said Pruitt was his friend, "a statesman" and "a dedicated public servant."
"He has proven himself to be an expert in balancing economic growth and environmental stewardship," said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a former EPW chairman, who also helped introduce Pruitt to the panel. Inhofe said Pruitt is considered a hero of "scenic river" supporters for reaching an agreement to clean up pollution from poultry operations along the Illinois River.