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By Brian Dabbs
A mission-driven public servant with tunnel vision on upholding the laws on the books.
That’s the ethos of the likely next Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, according to a range of public and tribal officials who have worked under and alongside him over recent years.
In testimony to Senate lawmakers, Pruitt has continued to hammer home that point.
“I will work to achieve the objectives of EPA-administered laws consistent with the process and framework established by Congress,” Pruitt said in answers to more than 1,000 questions from Senate Democrats that were posted publicly Jan. 25. “I would expect EPA to operate in an open and transparent manner, consider the views of stakeholders as appropriate, act based on sound science, and follow the laws.”
Pruitt, however, is a lightning rod, and the applause is far from shared by all. He’s prized by Republicans and critics of EPA overreach, but scorned by environmentalists. The nominee is still involved in several active lawsuits against the EPA, including challenges to the Clean Water Rule, Clean Power Plan, ozone air quality standards, mercury standards and methane limits for the oil and natural gas industry.
He also says he will seek authorization from EPA ethics officials to participate in that ongoing litigation as agency chief.
But despite the opposition swirling around Pruitt, those public and tribal officials say the nominee has a gift for convening diverse sets of stakeholders and then executing resolutions to complex problems. That’s likely to translate to an EPA headquarters that is far more receptive to state and local community concerns, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, and Oklahoma public and tribal officials told Bloomberg BNA in interviews.
Pruitt has touted his role in an accord to study and ultimately decrease phosphorus pollution in the Illinois River watershed as an example of the collaboration he’ll bring to EPA headquarters.
That accord, struck between Oklahoma and Arkansas in 2013, staved off years of potential litigation and encouraged Arkansas, the upriver state in the watershed, to implement a 0.035 milligrams per liter phosphorous limit, J.D. Strong, director of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and a recent head of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, told Bloomberg BNA.
“Rather than twiddle our thumbs and not do anything, Scott Pruitt said ‘lets reach across the table’ and ultimately get the buy in that was needed to reduce phosphorous,” said Strong, who referred to phosphorous contamination as a decades-long dispute among states.
Strange also stressed that Pruitt routinely aims to bring together a range of stakeholders in order to solve a problem.
Environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers have criticized the pact as a delay tactic that merely yielded a study on the contamination. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) pressed that narrative in Pruitt’s nomination hearing Jan. 18. Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), however, said the pact and study created stricter Arkansas controls.
The two states published a final report on the pact in recent weeks.
Dustin McDaniel, the Democratic attorney general of Arkansas at the time of the 2013 accord, praised Pruitt’s role in the pact in a mid-January letter to senators, arguing the agreement also strengthened Oklahoma’s controls. “The resulting agreement reflects that Oklahoma enhanced, not relaxed, its enforcement of environmental protection,” McDaniel said. “Scientists were appointed to establish the proper water quality metrics, and at no time were the phosphorous abatement measures relaxed.”
Pruitt, as the state’s attorney, also helped broker a deal in August to settle water rights for the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations, and tribal officials close to those negotiations praised Pruitt’s outreach to their communities.
The legal accord settled regulatory authority for waters in territories based on past treaties for a a wide swath of southern Oklahoma. Following the announcement of a deal, the tribes said the pact would put in place lake-release restrictions to control Oklahoma City’s water supply while ensuring water resources are available for wildlife and outdoor uses, such as fishing.
Michael Burrage, a member of the Choctaw Nation and lead counsel for both nations in the settlement process, told Bloomberg BNA Pruitt demonstrated a drive to serve all Oklahomans.
“We were able to get through some complex issues in really record time,” Burrage said. “We got it done in five years, and usually a case like this takes 20 years. He was willing to work and listen, and where compromise was needed, everybody compromised some.”
Bill Lance, secretary of commerce for the Chickasaw Nation, echoed that assessment.
“Scott Pruitt has a proud record as a solid advocate for the rights of all Oklahomans as attorney general,” Lance told Bloomberg BNA in a statement. Departed Interior Secretary Sally Jewell praised the tribal pact earlier in January as the first such agreement in Oklahoma.
Pruitt continues to describe the EPA as a critical body with rightful jurisdiction over cross-state and other areas of environmental regulation, arguing his litigation has in the past focused on challenging EPA violations of rulemaking protocol.
In response to a question posed by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member, Pruitt again said the EPA’s failure to conduct cost-benefit analysis prompted his legal challenge against the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. The suit argued the “EPA acted contrary to law and arbitrarily and capriciously by not considering the costs of regulation in determining whether it was necessary and appropriate to regulate mercury from fossil fuel power plants,” Pruitt said in his written response to Democrats.
The agency issued the power plant standards in 2011, and the regulations are still in place even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the EPA made a mistake by failing to consider cost in its decision that it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate power plant emissions ( Michigan v. EPA,135 S. Ct. 2699, 2015 BL 207163, 80 ERC 1577 (2015))
Strange, the Alabama attorney general who has joined Pruitt in a range of litigation against the EPA, said critics have unfairly painted the nominee as a regulatory opponent. Pruitt has made waves in the confirmation hearing by declaring his opinion on the human connection to climate change “immaterial,” but Strange said that’s the proper strategy for the likely soon-to-be administrator.
“It’s perfectly consistent with his record as attorney general and our work together to focus on enforcing the law and not making those kinds of decisions himself. So I think he will absolutely ensure the agency follows the law,” Strange told Bloomberg BNA. The two co-authored a controversial opinion article on climate change in mid-2016, which emphasized the value of free debate.
Pruitt says be believes the EPA should regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
That evaluation is shared by Tim Downing, a newly elected Oklahoma state representative who served under Pruitt at the attorney general’s office for roughly five years.
“He’s a very strong leader. He’s missional, and I think you see in him a man who identifies what the mission is and then executes it. He did that as attorney general and he’ll do that at the EPA,” Downing told Bloomberg BNA. “You also see him as a man that believes the government has to function within the rule of law.”
That argument hasn’t generated support among Senate Democrats or environmental groups, however. One political appointee at the EPA under former President Barack Obama said EPA employees are reading that pledge in different ways.
“A couple of people have said they felt more comfortable after hearing that, but the question is the difference between uphold and enforce,” the political appointee, who asked not to be identified, told Bloomberg BNA. “He may be saying he’s not going to violate the law, but if he doesn’t enforce it, what’s the difference. I’m getting a mixed bag, and it’s pretty speculative.
Career employee Larry Starfield is temporarily heading the EPA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance as President Donald Trump fills out the agency.
The Environment and Public Works Committee hasn’t yet scheduled a committee vote on Pruitt, but Republicans will soon move the nomination to the Senate floor. No Republicans have voiced opposition to Pruitt, indicating the chamber will ultimately confirm him.
Still, Democrats lashed out against Pruitt’s responses late Jan. 25 and Jan. 26.
“Mr. Pruitt’s responses were shockingly devoid of substance, did not rely on empirical evidence and did not reflect the thorough effort that a task so important to our democracy demands,” Carper said in a statement. “I strongly urge Mr. Pruitt to revisit these questions and provide us with the comprehensive information we need.”
A group of environmentalists, including Oklahoma lawyers, testified before Carper and other committee Democrats Jan. 24 on Pruitt’s allegedly poor environmental history.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a fierce Pruitt critic who has decried him as a fossil fuel industry shill, said the answers bode poorly for the future of EPA collaboration with Congress.
“If Mr. Pruitt is willing to sidestep the senators performing their role of providing advice and consent on his nomination, I can hardly imagine how contemptuous he will be when Congress asks for information about changes he makes to the Renewable Fuel Standard, clean air and water protections or toxics regulations,” Whitehouse said in a statement.
Republican counterparts, however, have taken a diametrically opposed position, stressing the nominee’s rule of law priority.
“Attorney General Pruitt has stood out as a champion of state and individual rights and has fought against federal overreach,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who taxied Pruitt on the attorney general campaign trail in his private airplane, told the confirmation hearing. “Pruitt will ensure that the agency fulfills the role delegated to it by the laws passed by Congress—nothing more, nothing less.”
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