A pattern is emerging in the list of Donald Trump’s picks for cabinet positions. His choice to oversee public schools as head of the Department of Education would like to do away with them. His nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services wants to limit access to health care. To lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he’s tapped someone opposed to the safety-net programs that agency administers. All together, it looks less like an administrative team than a wrecking crew.
Enter Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, whom Trump has chosen to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt—who will be the first EPA administrator to question the scientific consensus on the causes of climate change—has spent his five years as the state’s top attorney launching legal attacks against the agency he may soon be in charge of. More egregiously, he’s often done so at the behest of Oklahoma’s powerful oil and gas industry. His selection sends yet another signal that wealthy special interests control the seats at Trump’s governing table.
In 2014, an investigation by The New York Times revealed that Pruitt often acted as a stenographer for energy firms, secretly, via numerous letters sent from his office to the EPA, the Interior Department, and other federal agencies. Though the letters bore Pruitt’s signature, they’d actually been drafted by industry lobbyists. In one, Pruitt complained to the EPA that it was overestimating pollution from natural-gas wells in Oklahoma. That letter had been written by lawyers for one of the state’s biggest oil and gas companies, Devon Energy. “Outstanding!” the company’s lobbying director wrote in response to an e-mail from Pruitt’s office informing him the letter had been sent. “Please pass along Devon’s thanks to Attorney General Pruitt.”
One of Pruitt’s priorities after taking office was to establish a “federalism unit” in the attorney general’s office to fight environmental regulations and other laws, including the Affordable Care Act. He openly called for states to defy the federal government, arguing at one point that “no state should comply with the Clean Power Plan if it means surrendering decision-making authority to the EPA.” He also began to partner with energy companies in filing anti-regulatory lawsuits against the federal government, a practice that marked “a departure from the usual role of the state attorney general, who traditionally sues companies to force compliance with state law,” according to the Times. Pruitt helped to engineer a 28-state legal challenge to President Obama’s rules limiting carbon pollution from power plants, a key piece of the president’s efforts to limit climate change. Meanwhile, he ignored the troubling spread of man-made earthquakes across Oklahoma, caused by the disposal wells used in hydraulic fracking, which can damage property and infrastructure.
For Pruitt, the upside of his cozy working relationship with industry groups and energy magnates was significant political and financial support. His backers include Larry Nichols, the founder and chairman emeritus of Devon Energy, and Harold Hamm, the chief executive of the oil and gas firm Continental Resources, who co-chaired Pruitt’s reelection campaign in 2013. Both executives advised Trump on energy matters during his campaign. Pruitt also received money from Koch Industries, the chemical and oil corporation run by right-wing billionaires Charles and David Koch.
Pruitt’s leadership will likely mean an about-face at the EPA, which enforces critical environmental and public health protections, including the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, and levies penalties against polluters. The agency has had weaknesses during the Obama administration—in Flint, Michigan; in responding to environmental justice complaints; and in overseeing fracking—but it’s been fairly aggressive in using its discretion to address climate change. Trump promised to “get rid of” the agency “in almost every form,” and Pruitt’s record indicates he has a similar appetite. The Trump administration cannot on its own overturn major environmental regulations. But Pruitt could grind enforcement to a halt, cut personnel, and delegate more authority to the states. Expect a flurry of lawsuits: It’s likely that environmental groups will challenge major failures to enforce existing laws in court.
Democrats immediately promised to challenge Pruitt at his confirmation hearings. “The public record of misuse of office is extensive and certainly inappropriate for service in any federal capacity,” Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley told Politico. Bernie Sanders promised to “vigorously oppose” Pruitt, while Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal told The Hill “there will be a fight” over Pruitt’s confirmation. Still, it will be difficult for Democrats to muster the 51 votes needed to block his confirmation.
Pruitt, in a statement announcing his nomination on Thursday, said that he intends to run the EPA “in a way that fosters both responsible protection of the environment and freedom for American businesses.” Unfortunately, those two goals often come in conflict: Freedom for oil and gas drillers in Oklahoma has quite literally destabilized the earth. In the event of future conflicts between business and the health of the planet, Pruitt has made it clear which side he’ll choose.