Climate Won’t Be the Only Priority for Democrats in Pruitt Hearing

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) (Rob Kunzig/Morning Consult)

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator nominee Scott Pruitt will face more scrutiny over air toxicity and possible conflicts of interest than over the polarizing topic of climate change during his confirmation hearing next week, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told reporters Thursday.

Questions about Pruitt’s opposition to the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards could come from members of both parties more than the topic of climate change, Whitehouse said after a press conference on Pruitt’s nomination.

Pruitt will testify to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Jan. 18. Whitehouse is on the committee.

The Clean Power Plan has been one of the most hotly contested environmental regulations of President Barack Obama’s time in office. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay on it in February 2016, and President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to undo the plan.

Despite the national attention paid to the issue, Whitehouse, one of the Senate’s most vocal proponents for action on climate change, acknowledged that playing up Pruitt’s stance on climate change won’t turn many Republicans against him. Other issues, Whitehouse said, could more effectively raise concerns that Pruitt “may not be the right person.”

Whitehouse also noted that previous nominees to lead the EPA and the Department of the Interior have recused themselves from issues in which they were previously involved in lawsuits. Pruitt was involved in the lawsuit against the Obama administration’s greenhouse gas-cutting Clean Power Plan. Whitehouse said he or someone else on the committee will ask whether Pruitt will recuse himself from any involvement with the ongoing lawsuit.

“I think they’re probably going to try to blow through that,” Whitehouse said. “But again these are pretty baseline ethics rules and traditions, and I think it’s going to be incumbent upon us to try to defend them.”

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said Democrats have already submitted more than 50 questions to Pruitt. Many of the questions focus on process more than policy, including how Pruitt considers science when determining his stance on an issue.

“Where do you get your science?” Carper listed as an example of a question submitted to Pruitt. “Do you think the Environmental Protection Agency should be guided by science?”

Whitehouse and Carper did not explicitly say they will oppose Pruitt’s confirmation. But Pruitt has already made his positions clear on some major environmental issues, and Whitehouse said he would need an “epiphany” in order to turn from his history of supporting fossil fuel interests to holding positions Democrats would find acceptable.

One area where lawmakers don’t know Pruitt’s exact position is on the Renewable Fuel Standard, Carper said, adding that the administrative law behind the rule gives the EPA administrator significant flexibility to determine how much renewable fuel to add to the country’s gasoline supply.

Carper is also the senior Democrat on the investigations subcommittee on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which he said will be aggressive in holding the next EPA administrator accountable.

“We’ll do investigations … including trying to make sure whoever is at the helm of EPA is actually abiding by the oath that he or she takes,” Carper said.

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