It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. That’s not just the lyric in a holiday carol. It’s actually what H. Sterling Burnett of the Heartland Institute—a conservative and staunchly anti-climate science think tank—said when he heard about President-elect Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency. The choice is Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma attorney general, and a fierce critic of EPA regulations and the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. Needless to say, many environmentalists weren’t singing over Pruitt’s nomination. Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said it’s “like putting an arsonist in charge of fighting fires.” For more on the pick, we called up Joe Wertz, who’s a reporter at StateImpact Oklahoma, where he reports on the intersection of government, industry and natural resources.
The Allegheny Front: So give us a little background on Pruitt’s record as attorney general in Oklahoma and why the pick is drawing such strong reactions.
Joe Wertz: So shortly after Pruitt was elected attorney general here in Oklahoma, he started this unit within his office called the “Federalism Unit” to do—as he describes—fight against the federal government, its overreach and unwarranted regulations. He’s really made it a mission to push back against the Obama administration, the EPA and against environmental regulations and climate change rules. He really sees these rules and regulations that have come from EPA in the last few years as an overstep.
LISTEN: How Will Scott Pruitt Lead EPA?
AF: Pruitt has been a leader in the court case to stop the federal Clean Power Plan—the Obama administration’s signature climate policy, which limits carbon emissions. And he has been described as having a close relationship with the oil and gas industry. How does that translate into how he might run the Environmental Protection Agency?
JW: He’s really been a principal architect of this concerted legal effort from attorneys general in other states to put up a legal fight against Obama and the EPA. He has very close ties to the fossil fuel industry. Oil and gas is the number one industry here in Oklahoma, and oil and gas are big supporters as far as political contributions go. And he’s collaborated with oil and gas companies to push back against the EPA—which is unusual. The oil and gas companies have signed on as parties in his lawsuits, and a New York Times investigation showed that he was taking talking points from the industry. Pruitt is unapologetic about that, saying ‘Look, it’s a big interest and they’re one of the parties that’s affected by these EPA regulations, and I’m not ashamed to work with them and fight for them.’
AF: Attorneys general are often the enforcers of environmental regulations. So what can we learn from his past actions about what might happen at EPA over the next four years?
JW: Well, it remains to be seen. Clearly, a lot of people see this pick as a crystal clear signal that Trump intends to tear apart a lot of Obama’s environmental legacy. He’s somewhat limited on what he can do—and undo—in terms of what’s already on the books. But he could have a lot of power to slow roll and soften the blow of some of these existing regulations and block new ones coming down the pipeline. There are people here in Oklahoma who say that Pruitt does have a history of tackling complicated issues. There was a big water fight in Oklahoma that had a lot of powerful parties and different interests—cites and the state and Indian tribes. Supporters here say that he was good about listening and building a consensus among all these different parties.
AF: Is it fair to call him a climate denier?
JW: He’s certainly cast doubt on climate change. Certainly, he’s said the verdict is not entirely in.
AF: And so what chance—if any—does the Clean Power Plan have of surviving?
JW: Its fate is still in the hands of the Supreme Court. Pruitt has sued the EPA and joined lawsuits over the Clean Power Plan. Some of those attempts have been unsuccessful and some have gained traction. He’s given a lot of testimony before Senate subcommittees and up on Capitol Hill. He’s done a lot of interviews against the Clean Power Plan and against the EPA. He’s an opponent, to be sure.
AF: And what other stances has he taken over the years that might make environmentalists nervous?
JW: He’s certainly been critical of the endangered and threatened species designation. He’s been critical of methane rules and regulations. That matches other areas that he’s pushed back against the federal government on, [including] Obamacare. So he has a long track record of fighting the feds, and that’s really made him popular among conservatives.
AF: But now he’s going to be the feds.
JW: I mean, he’s going to—pending Senate confirmation—lead the very agency he’s made a name for himself fighting. It remains to be seen what that’s going to look like. I think some of it will depend on how these court cases come out. But his supporters say he’s a reformer. He comes from a very specific legal perspective. He’s bound by the law, even if he does have a different interpretation of it. In order to get the result he wants, he’s going to have to build consensus, and that means bringing a lot of people and parties to the table. It’ll be interesting to see how big that table is and who’s invited to it.
Joe Wertz is a reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma.