President Trump’s nominee to run the Environmental Protection Agency, a climate change skeptic who has for years been an ardent critic of the department he will now lead, got final Senate approval Friday after a prolonged assault from environmentalists.
The nomination of former Oklahoma Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt for the post has been one of the most bitterly fought since Trump took office last month, pitting a crusader for fossil fuel interests who has sued the agency 14 times against an environmental movement that is scrambling to preserve what it can of President Obama’s actions to curb climate change and protect natural resources.
Democrats held the Senate floor overnight into Friday urging colleagues to join them in opposing Pruitt — or at least to support their efforts to delay the vote. Their pleas came as a judge in Oklahoma issued an order for Pruitt to turn over thousands of email exchanges with oil and gas companies he has long kept secret. Those documents are to be made public starting Tuesday.
But Republican leaders, emboldened by the expressed support for Pruitt by two politically vulnerable Senate Democrats from coal country, would not delay the vote. Pruitt was confirmed by a vote of 52 to 46.
“The effort has been to delay nominations they have made controversial as long as possible in order to play to their left-wing base, which will not accept the results of the election,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Republicans were eager to confirm Pruitt swiftly after the collapse of Trump’s nominee to run the Labor Department, Andrew Puzder, and the political fallout lawmakers endured from the rocky confirmation proceedings of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The DeVos fight had caused the Capitol switchboard to light up with an overwhelming number of angry phone calls from constituents demanding their representatives vote against her.
GOP lawmakers rose to Pruitt’s defense, saying in speech after speech that the Environmental Protection Agency was out of control under Obama, trampling the rights of states to pursue their own environmental policies. They pointed to the Supreme Court decision that suspended the sweeping effort to combat climate change, called the Clean Power Plan, as evidence of the agency’s overreach. They called the agency’s administrative effort to vastly expand its authority to issue clean-water violations a brazen power grab.
“We’ve had an agency in the EPA that doesn’t listen to states, even though it’s required to by federal law; that ignores the rule of law as evidenced by numerous federal court decisions rebuking it; and that believes it has the power to regulate every nook and cranny of American life,” said Sen. Daniel Sullivan (R-Alaska). “Millions of Americans, including some of my constituents in Alaska, have come to fear their own federal government.... [Pruitt] is exactly the right person with the right qualifications and the right emphasis to fix this problem.”
Democrats had spent the night detailing all the ways Pruitt had worked to undermine mainstream climate science and crusade on behalf of the oil and gas industry. They paraded into the Senate chambers with charts and other presentations that detailed the effects of climate change. In the early-morning hours, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) even performed a science experiment on the floor to highlight the impact of ocean acidification. Late Friday morning, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer declared that Pruitt personified “the worst Cabinet, I think, in the history of America. Certainly in my lifetime.”
But Democrats were ultimately undermined by their own ranks in their fight to stop Pruitt from taking over the agency. Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, both up for reelection in 2018, voted for Pruitt, reflecting the political pressures facing Democrats in coal country states that supported Trump.
Pruitt will play a crucial role in Trump’s plan to “end the war on coal” and complete construction of the massive oil pipelines that stalled under the Obama administration amid environmental concerns. His confirmation comes as the Trump administration grapples with this week’s announcement that the largest coal plant in the West will soon shut down.
On the Republican side, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a moderate, voted against Pruitt, citing concerns about the fights he has led to block environmental rules she supports.
Pruitt will be inheriting an agency of 15,000 employees, many of whom will probably be openly hostile to his agenda. More than 770 former EPA employees signed a letter imploring lawmakers to reject his nomination, and many current employees joined the ranks of activists demonstrating against him at rallies and deluging congressional offices with phone calls.
He distinguished himself in Oklahoma by battling many of the signature environmental protections implemented by Obama, arguing they were a federal intrusion on the states. He does not accept the mainstream scientific consensus on climate change, and has been described by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Working Group as the worst nominee selected to run the EPA in history.
“For us to … approve this nominee, who is hostile, who has sued the agency, who has never done a thing in his life to protect the environment, is just outrageous,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine). “It’s a dereliction of our responsibility, and we are going to look back on this moment and say, ‘What were we thinking?’”
Schumer vowed that the confirmation was only the beginning of the fight with Pruitt, and states are already girding to take him on. California lawmakers are particularly alarmed by Pruitt’s refusal to commit to renewing a waiver the state has been granted for decades, allowing it to impose vehicle emissions standards tougher than the federal government’s. That waiver has evolved into a linchpin of the state’s pioneering effort to fight climate change. A dozen other states have embraced California’s tougher emissions rules, which now apply to about 40% of the new vehicles sold in the U.S.
California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris said on the Senate floor that Pruitt’s hedging on the waiver was “unacceptable.”
“It is a blatant double standard for someone who claims to be committed to breaking down regulations at the federal level and giving power back to the states,” she said.
1:35 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details and background.
10:15 a.m.: This article was updated with Pruitt’s confirmation.
This article was originally published at 3:15 a.m.