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What We Learned (And Didn’t) About Scott Pruitt At His Confirmation Hearing

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt made a name for himself by suing the Environmental Protection Agency and fighting against its regulatory power. That work has also made him a contentious choice for EPA administrator, drawing comparisons to President Ronald Reagan’s first EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch Burford, who cut the agency’s enforcement budget by more than 45 percent and was ultimately forced to resign after being found in contempt of Congress. Burford’s legacy could be felt in how the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works approached Pruitt in his confirmation hearing Wednesday — Republicans praised Pruitt for fighting federal overreach and regulatory madness, while Democrats voiced serious concerns that Pruitt would be working for the good of industry, rather than the good of the environment and Americans’ health.

Tensions were high throughout the hearing — the appellation “my friend, the good senator …” was used frequently and was almost always followed by a less-than-affectionate comment — and while we did learn more about Pruitt’s political and legal philosophy, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about what that philosophy will mean for environmental protection.

We know he accepts that climate change is happening.

Though, as Brad Plumer points out at Vox, this is a pretty low hurdle to clear for somebody who wants to run the agency tasked with drafting and enforcing laws that regulate the greenhouse gases driving climate change. And, after stepping handily over what amounts to a stick laid on the racetrack, Pruitt stumbled when faced with a slightly higher bar. Questioned more closely by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Pruitt explained that human activity contributes to climate change in “some manner.” But he believes there needs to be “more debate” about the degree to which human activity affects climate — and he’s previously written that we should also still be debating, rather than regulating around, the severity and extent of climate change and its impacts.

We don’t know how he’ll address it.

Pruitt repeatedly told Democrats that he believed the EPA had an important role to play in regulating carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases implicated in human-caused climate change. But no one on the committee asked him to elaborate on what that role was, what it wasn’t, or what he would be doing to fulfill it. Likewise, he framed his responses to questions about the threat greenhouse gas emissions pose to public health in terms of strict statements of the law — the EPA has determined that greenhouse gas emissions are a threat the agency is obligated to regulate, and the courts have upheld that finding. But Pruitt didn’t talk about what he’d do to carry out that obligation. He simply acknowledged that it exists and that there’s nothing he knows of that would cause a review of that rule. The closest we got to seeing inside his head was, again, in his back-and-forth with Sanders, when the senator tried to get Pruitt to explain his personal beliefs about climate change and what we should be doing to reduce the risks that result from it. Pruitt told Sanders that his personal beliefs were “immaterial” to the job of being EPA administrator.

We know he cares deeply about rule-making and rule-following.

One of Pruitt’s primary talking points: He didn’t sue the EPA 14 times because he doesn’t want clean air and clean water; he sued because the agency wasn’t following the rule of law. Over and over, he told the committee that rules matter — who makes them, how they’re made and how those same people then follow the rules that they’ve made. “That rule of law is not something that’s academic, in my view, it’s not something that’s just legal. I think it’s important to ensuring good outcomes,” Pruitt said.

We know that he wants more power in the hands of the states.

For Pruitt, a big part of what it means for the EPA to follow the rule of law will be to cede power back to individual states. “The states are not mere vessels of federal will,” he said. “They don’t exist simply to carry out federal dictate from Washington, D.C.” That doesn’t necessarily mean an end to multistate coordination when pollution and its impacts cross borders — in particular, Pruitt praised the six-state collaboration that led to a major pollution cleanup project in Chesapeake Bay. He repeatedly cited that project as an example of how the process should work, with states taking a lead role and the EPA being more of an “informational” partner, helping to facilitate state-directed plans.

We don’t know if that push for states’ rights will extend to states that want more-stringent regulations, rather than less-stringent ones.

Pruitt once opposed the Chesapeake Bay project that he praised Wednesday. In the hearing, he downplayed his prior opposition, explaining that he now supported it because the EPA’s role in the project changed. That role, however, is in direct opposition to previous interpretations of what the EPA’s job should be. In The Baltimore Sun, Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA official who served under President Clinton and both Presidents Bush, said the EPA was meant to aggressively enforce federal law, not “provide lunch and coffee and name tags [while] states would sort of work it out.” Meanwhile, senators repeatedly brought up California’s vehicle emissions standards, which are stricter than federal standards — the state is allowed to set its own rules thanks to a decades-old waiver from the EPA, which must be renewed annually. And it was renewed every year, wrote Stuart Leavenworth in The Charlotte Observer, except for 2008, the last year of President George W. Bush’s administration. The waiver was reinstated the following year by the Obama administration. Pruitt told both California Sen. Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey that he would review this exemption and could not promise that it would be renewed. That would depend on the process, Pruitt said, and it wouldn’t be reasonable to make a promise before the process had played out.

We don’t know what all this will mean for environmental outcomes.

Here’s another major talking point from Pruitt and the Republicans on the committee: It’s a false dichotomy to say that protection of the environment must always be at odds with protection of the economy or the energy industry. The message: Don’t worry. The environment will be protected, and so will profits. But that didn’t seem to reassure the Democrats. Pruitt was clear about wanting the EPA to have a better relationship with industries like fishing, agriculture and coal, and he spoke about restoring the balance between environment and industry. But he was never explicit about what a proper balance should be, or when and how the environment could win in a contest between the two. And some of his work in Oklahoma that he sees as a win for the environment is seen as the opposite by Democrats and environmental groups. Take the protection of an Oklahoma river that was being polluted by runoff from chicken manure. In the hearing, Pruitt and others touted his skill at coming to an agreement with the state of Arkansas on how to regulate phosphorous levels in that river. But New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and others pointed out that Pruitt actually delayed action on river cleanup. Instead of continuing a legal fight to punish polluters, which was already in progress when Pruitt took office as Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt and Arkansas agreed to conduct years of further study — the regulatory outcome of which Arkansas Sen. John Boozman still described as being “too stringent.” Add to that concerns about potential conflicts of interest related to both Pruitt’s ongoing lawsuits against the EPA and his relationships with industries he would be regulating (in one case, he allowed oil and gas company Devon Energy to literally speak for him in a letter to the EPA — a letter that was primarily about challenging EPA-conducted research with data provided by Devon), and you end up with a situation where many of the Democratic senators seemed to feel that they couldn’t trust what Pruitt said. That was apparent when Markey tried to get Pruitt to agree that it was OK for California to continue to set its own vehicle emissions standards. “So you say you’re going to review it?” Markey asked. “Yes, senator,” Pruitt said. “And when you say ‘review,’” Markey said, “I hear ‘undo.’”

Read more about Trump’s Cabinet appointments here.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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