By Stuart Leavenworth
McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — It is hardly unusual for a Republican president to select an Environmental Protection Agency chief who has close ties to the industries he or she will regulate.
Yet by selecting Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator, Donald Trump put forth a nominee who not only has sued the agency numerous times but also has turned to the industries he would not regulate to raise the millions of dollars needed to finance those lawsuits.
As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt directed two political action committees that took contributions from energy companies and other industries and then used them to further his political agenda.
One of them, the Rule of Law Defense Fund, allowed industry supporters to make anonymous donations in unlimited amounts. The defense fund then used some of that money to build support for Pruitt’s litigation agenda and elect other Republican attorney generals nationwide.
While the Rule of Law Defense Fund, as a 501(c)(4) organization, isn’t required to disclose its donors, a group affiliated with the Koch brothers — oil industry billionaires — reported contributing $175,000. The defense fund then used some of that money to build support for Pruitt’s litigation agenda and elect other Republican attorney generals nationwide.
Pruitt’s legal stance against the EPA and his fundraising interests are likely to become a focus of questioning when he appears before a Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday. Supporters say Pruitt would operate differently as the head of EPA than he did as attorney general of Oklahoma, a state where the fossil fuel industry provides 1 of every 5 jobs.
Opponents scoff at claims he would separate himself from the fossil fuel magnates who helped him build his political career. These include Oklahoma oil man Harold Hamm, a close adviser to Trump, and Joe Craft, the Kentucky-born president of the coal firm Alliance Resources.
“His ties to the fossil fuel industry are so pervasive,” said Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice, the nation’s largest environmental law center. “That is certainly different than what Trump campaigned on with his ‘drain the swamp’ slogan.”
Van Noppen and other environmental leaders have launched an aggressive campaign to derail Pruitt’s nomination. Yet he retains wide support from Republican senators and at least one Democrat from coal country, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Supporters, including some who have criticized some of Trump’s Cabinet picks, say Pruitt would help reduce the regulatory burden on industry and help grow jobs and the economy.
“The next EPA administrator should be someone who understands the important balance between protecting our air, water and environment without needlessly hurting workers with excessive regulations,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a statement last week. He declared Pruitt to be the right choice “to bring a much-needed dose of common sense to a department where overzealous, out-of-touch regulators have been allowed to operate seemingly unchecked.”
Pruitt, 48, was elected Oklahoma attorney general in 2010 after losing bids for Congress and lieutenant governor and previously serving in the state legislature. On his official website, he touts establishing “Oklahoma’s first federalism unit to combat unwarranted regulation and overreach by the federal government.” He also describes himself as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”
Over the last six years, Pruitt has helped build up the resources of the Republican Attorney Generals Association, which has marshaled numerous lawsuits against the EPA.
Altogether, Pruitt has filed or helped file 14 lawsuits against the EPA — nearly all of which were joined by oil companies, coal companies and other firms regulated by the EPA.
Pruitt unsuccessfully sued to stop EPA rules that would reduce emissions of toxic mercury from power plants. He has tried to block President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which would require a one-third reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. He’s called it a proposal that will “shutter coal-fired power plants” and “significantly increase the price of electricity for American consumers.”
That case and several others are still active, meaning that Pruitt could be in the position of defending the agency against lawsuits he helped file. While Pruitt has reportedly resigned from the Rule of Law Defense Fund, he hasn’t made clear how he would handle potential conflicts, including responding to litigation he helped file.
In 2014, The New York Times revealed that lobbyists for Devon Energy, one of Oklahoma’s biggest oil and gas companies, had drafted letters critical of EPA regulations and given them to Pruitt, who then sent them to the EPA and the Department of the Interior under his own name, with few changes.
In an interview with the Times that year, Pruitt dismissed suggestions he had compromised the integrity of his office by taking such actions. “Those kinds of questions arise from the environment we are in — a very dysfunctional, distrustful political environment,” Pruitt said at the time.
In recent weeks, environmentalists have thrown hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign to block Pruitt’s nomination. Activists have traveled to Washington from around the country to lobby their senators, including Mary McCrary Baylor of South Carolina.
In October 2015, Baylor and her family were fIooded out of their home in Columbia when a storm swelled creeks to 1,000-year levels, inundating vast neighborhoods and killing 19 people in South Carolina alone. Baylor said she opposed Pruitt because he’d expressed skepticism over climate change, which she fears will trigger more storms like the one that destroyed her home.
“My family and I were environmental refugees for six months,” said Baylor, who now lives with her husband and three children outside Columbia, in Blythewood. “I believe the U.S. Senate should only confirm an administrator who believes in science.”
Pruitt’s supporters are firing back. They’ve recently formed a new 501(c)(4) organization, Protecting America Now, that is raising money on behalf of the Oklahoma attorney general. A fundraising pitch sent out by the group says this “may prove to be the most difficult presidential appointment due to environmental extremist opposition.”
Again, U.S. tax law requires no disclosure of who donates.
If confirmed by the Senate, Pruitt would be Trump’s point man for dismantling some of Obama’s key environmental initiatives, particularly those reducing greenhouse gases. In a commentary in the National Review last year, Pruitt said the scientific debate on global warming “is far from settled.”
One immediate target is the Obama administration’s methane regulation, which seeks to reduce emissions of the potent greenhouse gas from new oil and gas operations, including hydraulic fracturing wells. The oil industry has fought the regulation since the EPA adopted it last year, arguing that the rules are confusing and inhibit development of a relatively clean-burning source of energy.
Yet the methane regulation is popular among people who live near fracking wells in states such as Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Illinois and Oklahoma. By limiting releases of methane from new wells, the regulation also forces industry to restrict emissions of harmful volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, said Patrice Tomcik, a mother of two who lives in Gibsonia, Pa., an epicenter of that state’s fracking boom.
Tomcik said that, two years ago, a gas company gained approved to construct five gas wells a half-mile from a school complex attended by her sons and 3,200 other children. She fears that, under the Trump administration, new fracking wells could mushroom near her community with no controls on methane, VOCs and other pollutants.
“Now is not the time to roll back these safeguards,” said Tomcik. “People who live here, next to these gas wells, depend on those safeguards.”
In Oklahoma and other states, studies have linked fracking — which involves pumping massive amounts of water and chemicals underground under high pressure to break shale rock and release the oil and natural gas inside — to an increase in earthquakes.
Pruitt has been mostly quiet on those findings, arguing that increased fracking is needed for both energy independence and the environment. Although Pruitt has expressed uncertainty about climate change science, he was a cheerleader for fracking in testimony to a House committee last year, calling it “a technological innovation that has done more to reduce carbon emissions in this country than any other technological advancement of our time.”