“My personal opinion is immaterial to the job,” Pruitt replied.
“Really?” Sanders said, agog. “You are going to be the head of the agency to protect the environment, and your personal feeling about whether climate change is caused by human activity is immaterial?!”
“Senator, I’ve acknowledged to you that human activity impacts the climate,” said Pruitt, visibly annoyed. The exchange was the most effective at revealing Pruitt’s seeming nonchalance about the issue, but it did not really supply new information. We don’t know any better how Pruitt will address CO2 after the hearing than we did before it.
Some senators, including Whitehouse and New Jersey’s Cory Booker, tried other lines of questioning. Whitehouse pointed to Pruitt’s deep ties to the oil and gas industry: Harold Hamm, the oil billionaire who popularized fracking, was the chair of Pruitt’s reelection campaign. Pruitt has also accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from the industry. Whitehouse highlighted the donations and the “dark money” that flowed into other groups that Pruitt ran.
Pruitt said all the donations were above-board—and the Senate Republicans, who hold a majority on the committee, did not seem to find it worth asking about.
Slightly different problems bedeviled Booker’s approach. Pruitt inherited a long-running water-quality lawsuit from Oklahoma’s previous attorney general. The suit alleged that poultry firms in Arkansas were poisoning the Illinois River by dumping chicken manure into it. Firms and executives in the poultry industry donated $40,000 to Pruitt’s campaign; when he won in 2010, he downgraded the suit to an investigation.
That, at least, is the simple version. The long version involves various Arkansas municipalities and decades-long debates over the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause. Booker attempted to spear Pruitt on the issue, but Pruitt—the trained trial lawyer—got him stuck in specifics. And Senator John Boozman, a Republican of Arkansas, intervened multiple times to say that Arkansas itself was quite pleased with Pruitt’s work.
Throughout the hearing, Pruitt repeatedly reiterated his commitment to federalism and “the rule of law.” He will stick to what the statutes let him do, he said, over and over and over again. Multiple times he implied this will involve devolving some regulatory authority to the states, and, indeed, federalism is built into the architecture of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.
But the only real bit of policy news to emerge from the hearing seemingly contravened his stated objective of federalism. The 1970 Clean Air Act allowed California to develop and enforce stricter emissions standards for cars—if the EPA administrator specifically granted them a waiver to do so. (Remember the images of smog-choked Los Angeles and it becomes clear why Congress delegated this power.) California has generally used this power to push for a more efficient and less polluting fleet of vehicles. And in the nearly 50 years since the Clean Air Act passed, the EPA administrator has denied their waiver only once—in 2008, during the Bush administration, when Stephen L. Johnson said that California could not regulate cars to limit greenhouse gases. (The next year, Obama’s EPA granted the waiver.)