Environmental groups yesterday sounded off against Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) leading U.S. EPA, calling him a climate denier with deep fossil fuel ties who has relentlessly aimed to thwart greenhouse gas standards.
Pruitt is among the chief attorneys general leading a 28-state fight against the agency's carbon regulations for power plants, and he joined a lawsuit against methane emissions limits for the oil and gas sector.
He has also managed to challenge those rules while saying surprisingly little about whether humans are contributing to climate change.
Pruitt has instead pushed the argument that the federal government is usurping states' rights. He has fought his battles more in the courts than in public opinion. One environmental advocate called the strategy "skillful" but "denial all the same." A Democratic Senate staffer said Pruitt's "MO seems to be to try to dodge the question."
In one co-authored National Review op-ed highly cited by climate advocates yesterday, Pruitt and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange (R) did question whether climate science is settled and said it's a policy debate that should be encouraged:
Healthy debate is the lifeblood of American democracy, and global warming has inspired one of the major policy debates of our time. That debate is far from settled. Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind. That debate should be encouraged — in classrooms, public forums, and the halls of Congress.
Although Pruitt's public record on climate science may be limited, David Arkush, managing director of Public Citizen's climate program, said the op-ed line "is denial, particularly in the context of [Pruitt's] record of devotion to the oil and gas industry."
Pruitt sent a letter to EPA complaining that federal regulators were overestimating air pollution from new natural gas wells, but The New York Times found that the letter had actually been written by a major Oklahoma oil and gas company.
Energy industry lobbyists drafted other letters for him to send to EPA, the Interior Department, the Office of Management and Budget and President Obama, according to that report. Industries he regulates also join him as plaintiffs in court challenges, "a departure from the usual role of the state attorney general, who traditionally sues companies to force compliance with state law," the Times noted.
"His denial is somewhat more skillful than that of someone who just says they don't believe the science," Arkush said. "But it's denial all the same. The goal of the denier is to sow doubt and cause delay, and that is precisely what his words and actions do.
"He even goes so far as to try to take the question away from scientists, calling it a 'policy debate' that should be held in 'public forums, and the halls of Congress.' No, it's a scientific question, and he does not demonstrate any expertise or argument that justifies questioning the science," Arkush continued.
Scott Segal, an industry lawyer at Bracewell, however, said the comment "suggests a more thoughtful position on the topic than perhaps environmentalists are willing to give him credit for."
"Climate change these days is less about science, and more about policy choice. There are fundamental questions about what policies would be effective and how much of society's resources should be spent on climate," Segal said. "Environmentalists are too quick to label policy disagreement or questions of legal authority as 'denial.'"
In any case, Democrats are likely to try to nail down Pruitt's full views on climate change in confirmation hearings. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) in a statement promised that those hearings would reveal Pruitt's full background to the American public.
Pruitt credits fracking for CO2 drops in Okla.
Pruitt's challenges to power plant climate standards have focused mostly on states' rights. More political or ideological points about climate action wouldn't have earned any points with judges.
In a House Science subcommittee in May, he told lawmakers he would begin by "explaining to you why I so jealously guard Oklahoma's sovereign prerogative to regulate in a way that is both sensible and sensitive to local concerns."
"In Oklahoma, our air is clean, our electricity is cheap, and our unemployment rate is low," he said according to submitted testimony. "We are proud of these things. We are proud of our nation-leading innovation in wind energy and our thoughtful regulation of the energy industry."
Environmental groups have disagreed that Oklahoma's air is clean.
Pruitt noted that Oklahoma produces more wind power than all but three states. He added that carbon dioxide levels have fallen because of a shift away from coal and toward natural gas.
"This didn't happen as a result of the heavy hand of the EPA. Rather, it happened because of fracking and the positive market forces that those sorts of Oklahoma innovations create," he said. "As natural gas becomes increasingly affordable, it becomes an increasingly attractive alternative to coal. And because coal still accounts for 34 percent of power generation, we will continue to see market driven emissions reductions for years to come.
"There are some who wish to create a false dichotomy between those who are 'for clean power' and those who are 'against clean power,'" Pruitt added. "I urge this committee to resist such rhetoric. We are all for clean power."
Over the last couple of years, as natural gas and renewable power have continued to overtake coal's market share, the state standards of the Clean Power Plan have appeared less and less stringent. Most states are on track to meet them in the early years, although that won't be nearly enough to meet the United States' international climate agreements. Regardless of whom Donald Trump picks to head EPA, the president-elect and the Republican-controlled Congress are almost certain to attack the rule.
Despite resistance to the Clean Power Plan from Pruitt and Gov. Mary Fallin (R), Oklahoma was "pretty well-positioned" to comply," according to comments last year from Michael Teague, the state's secretary of energy and environment.
The state Legislature passed a bill to prohibit planning, but Fallin vetoed it and instead issued an revocable executive order to prevent the state from submitting a carbon-cutting blueprint. Teague noted that every power company was eager to avoid getting stuck with a federal plan. One utility, American Electric Power Co. Inc., has noted that its emissions in Oklahoma have fallen year after year.
Pruitt's focus on state authority dates back years.
Comments submitted by his office in 2014 on behalf of states opposed to the draft Clean Power Plan argued that EPA was trying to override states' energy policies and impose a national energy and resource-planning policy that picks winner and losers.
It would force states to "favor renewable energy sources and demand-reduction measures over fossil fuel-fired electric production," they said, adding that EPA had decided it had "breathtakingly broad authority to reorganize states' economies."
In a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing about standards for new power plants in 2013, he didn't rail against action to curb climate change, either. He noted that Oklahoma had written a plan to control regional haze by requiring six plants near a wildlife refuge to burn low-sulfur coal instead of installing scrubbers or over time eliminating coal-fired power as an EPA rule mandated. EPA rejected it, and Pruitt argued that was because the proposal included fossil fuels.
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