Donald Trump picked Oklahoma Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt to run the Environmental Protection Agency, signaling the president-elect will deliver on his vow to disassemble President Obama's landmark effort to fight climate change.
Pruitt, 48, a staunch ally of the fossil fuel industry, has taken a lead nationally in resisting Obama's environmental agenda. He is an architect of the multi-state legal effort to block the administration's sweeping national mandates for cleaner-burning power plants, a linchpin of its program to combat global warming.
"Atty. Gen. Pruitt has great qualifications and a good record," Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway said in response protests from environmentalists and others over the pick. She said Trump interviewed several candidates for the post. "We look forward to the confirmation hearings," Conway said.
Pruitt disputes the mainstream scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet at an alarming rate and that world governments must act aggressively to limit emissions if they are to avoid catastrophic consequences. He has also fought EPA anti-pollution rules.
"Pruitt could be the most hostile EPA administrator toward clean air and safe drinking water in history," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.
The impact of an EPA under his direction would vary considerably from state to state. In places like California that enthusiastically embrace the fight against climate change and have clean air and water rules that exceed federal standards, the fallout may be marginal. Such states will probably resume the role they held during the last Republican administration in Washington, as defiant laboratories for cleaner energy that push other states to follow their lead by reshaping regional energy markets.
But states like Pruitt's Oklahoma, which remain heavily invested in fossil fuels, would face far less federal pressure to replace aging power plants and expand their use of renewables. Pruitt's record of resisting federal regulation also suggests the EPA under him could limit its role in holding state governments to account when their enforcement of anti-pollution rules fall short, as happened in Flint, Mich., where the city's drinking water supply was contaminated.
Pruitt would not be empowered to cancel the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, which sets goals for states to meet in reducing their carbon pollution. But he could decline to defend the plan in court or attempt to slow its implementation. The emissions rules are unlikely to be effective if enforced by an EPA chief who opposes them.
Major environmental groups and Democrats responded to Trump's pick of Pruitt with alarm. They vowed a spirited confirmation fight.
"For the sake of the air we breathe, the water we drink and the planet we will leave our children, the head of the EPA cannot be a stenographer for the lobbyists of polluters and Big Oil," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco. "Pruitt has brazenly used his office as a vehicle for the agenda of big polluters and climate deniers in the courts – and he could do immense damage as the administrator of the EPA."
Pelosi's comments referred to a 2014 New York Times report that found energy lobbyists drafted letters for Pruitt to send to federal agencies and Obama, outlining the hardships of federal regulations. Several opponents cited the letters in charging that Pruitt is unqualified for the EPA post.
"He is a climate science denier who, as attorney general for the state of Oklahoma, regularly conspired with the fossil fuel industry to attack EPA regulations," said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune.
Pruitt co-wrote an article in May for National Review with Alabama Atty. Gen. Luther Strange that insisted the climate 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," the attorneys general wrote.
Trump campaigned as an unflinching crusader for fossil fuels. He has called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese and pledged repeatedly to scrap the global climate treaty the United States signed last year in Paris with 195 other nations. That treaty pledges the U.S. will work to limit the rise in temperatures from human-induced warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, an ambitious goal that requires an aggressive redirection of the energy economy.
A refusal by the U.S. to abide by the treaty could prompt other nations to do the same. World leaders have called on Trump to reconsider, and in recent weeks he gave signs that perhaps he was wavering. Trump and his daughter Ivanka held meetings for 90 minutes at Trump Tower on Monday with former Vice President Al Gore, a prominent crusader against climate change.
Gore offered environmentalists a faint glimmer of hope by reporting that Trump seemed receptive to his message. Trump had earlier told reporters he was keeping an open mind on climate change.
But Trump's actions even before he settled on Pruitt to lead the EPA suggested he would not abandon his plans to scrap as much of the Obama climate agenda as he could. His transition teams at both the EPA and the Department of Energy are led by activists who have built their careers helping fossil fuel companies in their effort to torpedo legislation aimed at combating climate change and promoting renewable energy. Several other policymakers and lobbyists Trump has brought into his circle since winning the election are climate skeptics.
Republicans who have resisted Obama's efforts on climate change applauded Trump's choice of the Oklahoma attorney general.
"Pruitt has fought back against unconstitutional and overzealous environmental regulations," said Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. "He has proven that being a good steward of the environment does not mean burdening taxpayers and businesses with red tape."
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