Democratic Senators quizzed Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, over his energy industry ties, during a contentious confirmation hearing on Wednesday that was occasionally interrupted by protests.
Pruitt, 48, is a climate change skeptic who sued the agency he intends to run more than a dozen times as Oklahoma’s top prosecutor. He also chaired the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a group of conservative attorneys general that vehemently opposed a number of EPA regulations.
Both his opponents and his supporters believe his record indicates he will aggressively carry out Trump’s vows to slash EPA regulation to boost industry, including U.S. oil and gas drilling and coal mining.
“Why are folks so concerned?… We’re concerned that we won’t be fine with the environment,” said Democratic Senator Tom Carper of Delaware. “You joined in a dozen or more lawsuits… going after the EPA. That’s why you have the kind of concern you’re witnessing here today.”
In prepared remarks that were interrupted by protesters shouting “There is no planet B”, Pruitt said he would seek to ensure environmental rules were effective without hurting development.
“Environmental regulations should not occur in an economic vacuum. We can simultaneously pursue the mutual goals of environmental protection and economic growth,” he said. He added that he would seek to give states more authority to regulate their own environmental issues.
Trump has promised to refocus the EPA on its core values of protecting air and water quality, while scrapping many of President Barack Obama’s initiatives to combat global climate change by targeting carbon dioxide emissions.
For weeks, environmental groups have campaigned to urge lawmakers to block Pruitt’s nomination, saying he is doing the bidding of energy companies and industry groups that have contributed to his past election campaigns.
The Environmental Defense Fund’s Action Fund, which says it has never opposed a nominated EPA chief, set up a website with links to research it says shows a correlation between his campaign contributions and his litigation.
Green activist billionaire Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate advocacy group has launched anti-Pruitt television ads in a dozen states. The Natural Resources Defense Council said on Tuesday that Pruitt “is the worst nominee ever tapped to lead the U.S Environmental Protection Agency.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island asked Pruitt to detail his fundraising work at the Rule of Law Defense Fund, which critics say supports the agenda of the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers. Pruitt was chairman of the group but resigned in November.
Pruitt did not directly answer the question, but countered the idea that donations influenced his work, saying some contributors had been sued by his office, including Exxon Mobil in a fraud case.
Six Democratic senators on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, conducting the hearing, had asked Pruitt in a letter this month to disclose his industry ties. Pruitt did not respond.
Several conservative groups and political action committees supported Pruitt in advance of the hearing, including the PAC Freedom Works and America Rising Squared, a registered nonprofit backing conservative issues. The National Association of Manufacturers also launched three television ads calling on viewers to contact their senators in support of his confirmation.
Pruitt has said the debate over what is causing climate change is not yet settled. He was likely to face questions from lawmakers about the science behind global warming.
U.S. government agencies said on Wednesday that world temperatures in 2016 hit a record high for the third year in a row, creeping closer to a ceiling set for global warming.
Pruitt’s hearing is one of a series of sessions to vet Trump’s senior appointees since last week. Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, was questioned by lawmakers last week. His choice for Energy Secretary, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, is scheduled to testify on Thursday.
(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and David Gregorio)