Five Takeaways From Scott Pruitt’s Nomination Hearing That Should Worry Scientists

January 19, 2017 | 5:02 pm
Photo: C-SPAN screenshot
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

Yesterday’s hearing on the nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General (AG) Scott Pruitt to serve as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) generated controversy, media attention and perhaps some new information. As a scientist who has worked in both academia and government, including as a front-line regulator in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), I am very worried by Mr. Pruitt’s statements to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and what they portend for his leadership of the EPA.

Here are my top five concerns following the hearing:

#1: Recusal on issues under litigation—or not

Mr. Pruitt has made a name for himself by using his positions as AG for Oklahoma and head of the Republican Attorneys General Association to sue the very agency he is now nominated to lead. The legal arguments have been rather dubious, as noted in UCS President Ken Kimmell’s recent blog. Though they constitute a substantial portion of his record, AG Pruitt’s argument has prevailed in very few cases. The Senate, yesterday, probed that record in questions from Senators Carper, Whitehouse, Booker, Markey and others. From a scientist and regulator’s perspective the exchange with Senator Markey was most concerning. Effectively, Mr. Pruitt wouldn’t commit to recusing himself from court challenges to the EPA’s work on regulating greenhouse gases, mercury pollution, ozone, haze, cross-state pollution issues, clean water, and other issues, despite his clear conflicts in those cases.

Mr. Pruitt said he would be guided by the EPA ethics attorneys. The ethics office is part of the EPA General Counsel’s office, appointed by and reporting to Mr. Pruitt. They are not an independent outside counsel. Mr. Pruitt is, in effect, their client. Hopefully the office will advise him to avoid conflicts of interest and the appearance of conflicts. As Senator Markey said, being plaintiff and defendant as well as judge and jury in these cases seems like a pretty clear conflict.

So suppose the attorneys convince the EPA Administrator to recuse himself. Then what happens?

I find it hard to imagine an EPA where the leader of the agency is recused from working on all these issues. After all, clean air, water, climate change, interstate pollution and more constitute a huge portion of the agency’s work. An administrator sitting on the sidelines while these decisions are made would significantly hobble work on these critical public health and safety issues by the federal agency tasked to protect us.

Suppose the Administrator does not recuse himself? The very basis for most of these suits is that EPA should take a backseat to the states and that the rules for reducing the risk of these public health and safety threats should be rolled back. Then the agency has to redo or discard years of work. Fundamental scientific analyses of the public health risks must be set aside and the agency has limited ability to adequately address many of the biggest environmental risks to the public that we know about.

Either way, the result seems unworkable.

Senator Whitehouse held up a chart of donors to Mr. Pruitt’s campaigns and organizations he led to battle with the EPA.  It is an impressive and frightening list of major industrial polluters.

Senator Whitehouse held up a chart of donors to Mr. Pruitt’s campaigns and organizations he led to battle with the EPA. It is an impressive and frightening list of major industrial polluters.

#2: Mr. Pruitt has clear financial conflicts of interest

As a scientist, every time I publish an academic paper or serve on an advisory panel or perform a peer review of another scientist’s work, I have to report any financial conflicts of interest that may arise concerning the work in question. That’s a good thing, and I fully support more rigorous and understandable disclosure of potential conflicts. It is a hard thing to get right.

So when I hear Mr. Pruitt’s financial ties to major industry players with a real interest in the work of the EPA, it is hard to understand how these can be resolved.  Senator Whitehouse held up a chart of donors to Mr. Pruitt’s campaigns and organizations he led to battle with the EPA.  It is an impressive and frightening list of major industrial polluters. In response to questions about his financial connections with industry, Pruitt was evasive about his fundraising and donor network. He was also cagey about a well-documented case where he directly used a letter drafted by one of these companies, Devon Energy, submitting it to the federal government from the Attorney General’s office as if it was his own. Tellingly, Senator Booker asked if he had ever written a letter on behalf of children suffering from asthma in his state (Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of child asthma in the country). The answer was no.

These are real financial conflicts of interest. It is not just campaign donations, but funding groups expressly set up to fight the EPA. How can a lead and co-founder of one of these groups not have a conflict?

And to top it off, in response to Sen. Rounds, Mr. Pruitt stated (with no evidence) that the EPA Science Advisory Board and Clean Air Science Advisory Committee members had conflicts of interest that needed to be addressed. This fails a red-face test by any measure.

#3: Mr. Pruitt maintains that our role in global warming is uncertain.

I suppose there is some slight relief that Mr. Pruitt stated during his hearing that climate change is not a hoax. It is somewhat ironic given that he was nominated by Mr. Trump and introduced at the hearing by Sen. Inhofe.  Both are on record, and in the latter case wrote a book, firmly claiming all the science from around the world concerning global warming is a bizarre conspiracy. Sen. Inhofe even stated in the hearing that climate change is a lie and that he is a “one-man truth squad,” after touting his close ties and high regard for Mr. Pruitt.

However the EPA is the primary agency responsible for regulating the emissions of greenhouse gases in order to mitigate climate change, a responsibility Mr. Pruitt acknowledged during the hearing. And Mr. Pruitt said he has no opinion on the human role in our changing climate. What does this mean if he is confirmed as EPA Administrator? Will the EPA take no position on anthropogenic climate change? Or does he believe that we should study the issue more before taking action?

Furthermore, Mr. Pruitt said that the impacts of global warming are still uncertain. Well I guess they won’t be after they occur, but then any actions will be too late.  Is he suggesting that we only act after all impacts are known with a high degree of precision? That is a ridiculous position that no doctor, public health scientist nor anyone concerned with the public interest could possibly support.

#4: Mr. Pruitt’s lack of concern for environmental justice

There were several references to environmental justice during the hearing, some implied and some explicit. The higher-level of impacts of environmental problems and public health risks for low-income communities and communities of color is well documented and a long-standing challenge across the US. Flint, Michigan and lead in the water supply is but one example of the many justice and equity issues that the EPA must come to grips with. Several groups working for greater environmental justice recently wrote to the administration to highlight the importance of these issues.

While Mr. Pruitt generally acknowledged that environmental injustice is important, there were two parts to Mr. Pruitt’s statements in the hearing that are worrying. First, with regard to the well-documented situation in Flint, which is representative of many other communities around the country, he said he had not “looked at the scientific research” on lead in water and didn’t know what was safe. This situation has been so widely reported that it is hard to understand how anyone with a reasonable interest in public health and safety could not have the strong sense that lead in the water supply put the residents of Flint and other communities at grave risk.

Are we to presume that for any issue to be dealt with by the EPA under Pruitt, it would require the Administrator to review the scientific research himself to draw a conclusion about the problem? That seems absurd for someone leading a science-based agency with literally thousands of scientists on staff. I can’t wait for the well-worn out phrase, “I am not a scientist but…” to be trotted out.

Secondly, Mr. Pruitt consistently maintained throughout the hearing that in his view, the lead role for addressing public health concerns and in all the work the EPA is tasked to do should be the states. He maintains, including in his legal actions, that the EPA has exceeded authority and that he believes that a federalism model devolving power to the states is the right approach. This seems to leave aside that the major statutes like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, as well as one of his favorite targets, the Clean Power Plan, do rely principally on state action in order to address public health and safety threats.

But in Flint, and for many other environmental justice issues, it is precisely because a given state has failed to act that many of these long standing issues have not been resolved. There is currently a federal executive order to address environmental justice, and a plan for the EPA to move forward more aggressively on these issues. Has Mr. Pruitt championed such a plan in Oklahoma or brought any cases on environmental justice issues?  If so, they are not on record. If the Administrator of the EPA believes the states should have the prerogative to act, or not act, on environmental issues, and many of the states have historically failed to act, where does that leave the communities?

#5: Mr. Pruitt is unclear on the role of a regulator

Finally, along with all of these issues, one general line of argument really worried me concerning Mr. Pruitt’s leadership of the EPA. He stated early in the hearing, “the role of a regulator is to make things regular.” Not only do I find the statement effectively meaningless, but it suggests that Mr. Pruitt believes that one of the nation’s premier agencies for protecting public health and safety should step back and let things be “regular”—whatever that means. I believe regulators must step forward and strive to improve the status quo to best serve the public interest.

Mr. Pruitt and some of the committee members repeatedly referred to the costs of environmental regulation, without even mentioning the benefits to the public. Sure, he acknowledged that energy and environment need not be in conflict. But if cost is the major consideration, Mr. Pruitt misses the point of the work of the EPA entirely.

The job of leading the EPA is serving the needs and threats to asthmatic children all around the country by reducing air pollution, rather than representing the interests of the industries that are creating that pollution.

This job is to rely on the scientists and scientific evidence to decide what, how and where to take action on the full range of issues the EPA is responsible for, rather than waiting for state action. And it requires recognizing that the EPA’s science and regulatory capability far outstrips that of any state in the union.

And the Administrator’s job is to address risks, not certainties, because there is too much at stake in communities in every state that are challenged by global warming, pollution, environmental degradation, and other threats to sit idly by.

From yesterday’s hearing, Attorney General Pruitt doesn’t seem to realize or accept any of these fundamental tasks and is therefore the wrong choice to lead the EPA in this administration.