Sitting before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last month, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt — President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency — tried to strike a measured tone on some of the most pressing environmental issues facing the country, from climate change to carbon dioxide regulations.
Pruitt said he would not seek to overturn a 2009 finding allowing the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide, for instance, and acknowledged the reality of climate change — though he wrongly argued that the role of human activity is subject to debate.
But in interviews given to the Oklahoma-based, energy industry-focused radio show Exploring Energy over the past year, Pruitt has taken a far less moderate stance on the issues he would oversee as EPA administrator, from the Obama administration’s signature climate regulation, the Clean Power Plan, to the issue of climate change.
“I appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee, last year I believe it was, sometime earlier in the year, about the Clean Power Plan challenge that we were part of leading,” Pruitt said during an April 2016 appearance on the show. “And this Senator from Rhode Island during the midst of the testimony was just — it is just a religious belief for him and for others.”
Pruitt was alluding to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), one of the most prominent climate hawks in the Senate. Whitehouse, who sits on the Environment and Public Works Committee, has said he is opposed to Pruitt leading the EPA.
“I said it is immaterial with what we are talking about today, we are talking about the law and whether you have empowered the EPA to regulate,” Pruitt continued. “But they don’t care about those kinds of things. It is truly about the suppression of free speech and the suppression of ideas.”
“It is truly about the suppression of free speech and the suppression of ideas.”
In another interview with the radio show, Pruitt — who has sued the EPA 14 times as Oklahoma’s attorney general — cited the wrong section of the Clean Air Act to argue that the agency does not have the authority to regulate carbon dioxide.
“If you go to the Clean Air Act today and go to Section 112 of the Act… if you go read the section in the Clean Air Act where it lists all of the hazardous air pollutants the EPA is authorized and empowered to regulate, guess what you won’t find. You won’t find carbon, you won’t find CO2,” Pruitt said.
The only problem with that line of reasoning is that it is a different section of the Clean Air Act — Section 111(d) — that has been used by the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. And while carbon dioxide isn’t specifically listed under the original list of air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act — the EPA has actually reduced the number of air pollutants listed since 1990 — the Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide. Section 112 of the Clean Air Act dictates hazardous air pollutants from existing power plants — but that is not the section of the Clean Air Act that the EPA has used to promulgate the Clean Power Plan.
Pruitt’s history of suing the EPA — as well as his rejection of the mainstream consensus on climate change — have made him a controversial pick to lead the agency. Both current and former EPA employees have protested his nomination in a rare showing of public criticism from federal agency workers.
In other appearances on the show, Pruitt falsely peddled the claim that the science on climate change is far from settled, arguing that scientists still disagree about whether climate change is happening and whether human activity is the leading cause of climate change.
“Reasonable minds can disagree about what is actually happening,” he said during an April 2016 appearance. “How it is happening, clearly, if it is, clearly is a subject for reasonable minds to disagree. Whether man is contributing or not.”
In May, he reiterated those claims, arguing that “the debate about climate change is just that, a debate.”
“There are scientists that agree, there are scientists that don’t agree, to the extent of man’s contribution and whether it is even harmful that this point,” he said. “We do not know if the trajectory is on an unsustainable course. Nor do we know the extent by which the burning of fossil fuels, and man’s contribution to that, is making it far worse than it is.”
“We do not know if the trajectory is on an unsustainable course. Nor do we know the extent by which the burning of fossil fuels, and man’s contribution to that, is making it far worse than it is.”
None of that is true. Scientists do not disagree whether climate change is happening, nor do they disagree about the main cause. An overwhelming majority of currently publishing climate scientists — 97 percent — say climate change is real and is primarily driven by human activities, the most salient being the burning of fossil fuels. That’s about the same level of consensus that the medical community has about the link between cigarettes and lung cancer.
Pruitt peddled similar soft denial of climate science during his confirmation hearing, arguing that the link between human activity and climate change is still the subject of debate within the scientific community. When asked by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) about his personal opinion on the link between climate change and human activity, Pruitt demurred, claiming his opinion would be immaterial to his job as EPA administrator.
“Really?” Sanders countered. “You are going to be the head of the agency to protect the environment, and your personal feelings about whether climate change is caused by human activity and carbon emissions is immaterial?”
In an October 2016 appearance on Exploring Energy, Pruitt was less careful to conceal his opinions about climate change, however.
“What’s happening — it’s a political bumper sticker,” Pruitt said. “You have the administration using climate action as a way to wedge Republicans and Democrats, win presidential elections, congressional seats, and to go on this worldwide Al Gore type of tour to get the applause of international folks. And what it’s doing, it’s hurting our country.”
“What’s happening — it’s a political bumper sticker.”
The Senate is likely to hold a floor vote on Pruitt’s confirmation as EPA administrator later this week. If he is confirmed, as is expected, he will have a chance to shape the nation’s primary environmental agency — and if his appearances on Exploring Energy are any indication, that’s bad news for the climate.