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Environmentalists Brace For Scott Pruitt To Take Over EPA

Dec 14, 2016
Originally published on December 14, 2016 9:27 pm
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Trump's nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency has questioned the science behind climate change. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has sued the EPA over what he calls its activist agenda. Both Pruitt and Trump want states to have more control over environmental regulations. Joe Wertz of StateImpact Oklahoma reports that if Pruitt is confirmed, he could test the limits of that idea.

JOE WERTZ, BYLINE: A republican president created the EPA. Richard Nixon's idea was pretty simple. Pollution is an enemy that does not stop for state lines, and the only way to beat it is with a coordinated attack led by the federal government.

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RICHARD NIXON: Clean air and clean water, the wise use of our land, the protection of wildlife and natural beauty, parks for all to enjoy - these are part of the birthright of every American.

WERTZ: Today Scott Pruitt and other Republicans say the EPA is attacking a lot more than pollution. Here's Pruitt testifying against the Clean Power Plan at a Senate subcommittee hearing.

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SCOTT PRUITT: When the EPA exceeds the constraints placed upon the agency by Congress, the relationship is thrown out of balance, and the rule of law and state sovereignty is affected adversely.

WERTZ: Energy companies applauded the Pruitt nomination. Conservatives are happy, too. Shortly after Pruitt was elected, the Oklahoma AG created a brand new federalism unit devoted to fighting for more states' rights in court. Pruitt has sued the EPA and challenged rules on Mercury and cross-state air pollution and Obama's signature Clean Power Plan.

DAVID GOLDSTON: Whatever they actually believe, the result is that they're protecting polluters.

WERTZ: That's David Goldston with the National Resources Defense Council.

GOLDSTON: It's one thing to say well, you don't think the federal government should do this or that. I mean he's gone further on climate and questioned whether there's actually a problem despite the clear consensus of scientists.

WERTZ: Jody Freeman is the director of the environmental law program at Harvard Law. She also advised the Obama White House and is on the board at ConocoPhillips. She says EPA administrators get most of their power through setting program budgets and deciding which new programs to pursue or not pursue, and Pruitt would have wide discretion on enforcing environmental rules.

JODY FREEMAN: And if he wants to slow down enforcement or treat the states more gently, be a little more lax, he can certainly try to do that.

WERTZ: But Freeman says he couldn't just ignore rules, and she says courts are skeptical of dramatic changes.

FREEMAN: You don't just eliminate a rule. There are legal procedures that prevent Cabinet heads from doing things with the stroke of a pen.

WERTZ: Pruitt supporter Todd Hiett was a Republican speaker of the Oklahoma House when Pruitt was a state senator. He says Pruitt has a track record of building consensus and making deals on complicated environmental issues.

TODD HIETT: He's going to be thorough. He's going to be fair. He's going to stay within the confines of the law. But at the same time, he's going to look for practical solutions.

WERTZ: Pruitt declined an interview request. His predecessor in the Oklahoma AG's office, Democrat Drew Edmondson, thinks the EPA would be less proactive under Pruitt but not completely absent.

DREW EDMONDSON: There are too many of us who remember what it was like when you couldn't see a skyline from five miles away because of smog. Nobody wants to return to that time.

WERTZ: Including, he says, Scott Pruitt. For NPR News, I'm Joe Wertz in Oklahoma City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.