Scott Pruitt is a champion for states’ rights — unless they want to strengthen environmental protection

In his confirmation hearing for EPA administrator, he would not commit to letting California set its own emissions standards for automobiles.

CREDIT: Ron Sachs / CNP /MediaPunch/IPX
CREDIT: Ron Sachs / CNP /MediaPunch/IPX

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt — President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for EPA administrator — has a history of touting the importance of states’ rights in regulating the environment. As attorney general, he even created a Federalism Unit, dedicated to combating federal regulations that Pruitt deemed to be federal overreach.

But at his confirmation hearing Wednesday, Pruitt was less enthusiastic about California’s right as a state to review and enforce its own automobile pollution rules, which is allowed under the Clean Air Act.

“I agree to review that as each administrator before me has,” Pruitt told Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), when asked whether he would uphold the waiver allowing California to issue its own vehicle pollution standards. “Senator, as you know, administrators in the past, have not granted the waiver and have granted the waiver.”

Later in the hearing, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) highlighted the hypocrisy in Pruitt’s insistence on states’ rights, except seemingly in instances where a state wants to deepen their environmental protections.

“It’s troublesome, because obviously what we have heard all day is how much you support states’ rights when it comes to these issues,” Markey said during the exchange. “But now when it comes to the right of California or Massachusetts and other states to be able to reduce carbon pollution, you’re saying you are going to review that.”

“So my problem really goes to this double standard that is created, that when you sue you from the Oklahoma perspective, from the oil and gas industry perspective and you represent Oklahoma, you say they have a right to do what they want to do in the state of Oklahoma,” Markey continued. “But when it comes to Massachusetts or California, when it comes to the question of those states wanting to increase their protection for the environment, protect their victimization from carbon pollution, you say there you are going to review.”

California has been regulating pollutants from automobiles since before the EPA existed as an agency. As such, when President Nixon created the EPA, it gave California the right to enforce its own automobile emissions standards. California chose to set more stringent standards, and since automobile manufacturers were essentially required to create cars that could meet California standards, those standards became the de facto standards for the entire country, helping to drive down vehicle emissions on a wide scale.

Pruitt is right that the EPA has not always allowed California to enforce stricter environmental standards — once, during the George W. Bush administration, the EPA denied California the right to enforce a more stringent automobile emission standard.

But his hesitancy on Wednesday to promise lawmakers that he would allow California to continue crafting its own air emissions standards puts Pruitt, a champion of states’ rights, in a precarious position: to deny California’s waiver would be to subvert the right of the state to a federal entity, something that Pruitt has fought against for six years as Oklahoma Attorney General. But to allow California to set its own emission standards could anger industry — especially the oil and gas industry and automobile industry — which has been antagonistic towards vehicle emissions standards in the past.

In a statement released on Wednesday, California State Senate leader Kevin de León said that Pruitt would be met with “full resistance” if he tries to roll back California’s environmental standards.

In a tweet, Sen. Harris also called Pruitt’s refusal to state whether he would uphold the California waiver “unacceptable.”