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Monday, December 11, 2017

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate confirmed President Donald Trump’s pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency on Friday over the objections of Democrats and environmentalists worried he will gut the agency, as the administration readies executive orders to ease regulation on drillers and miners.

Senators voted 52-46 to approve Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. Senator John Barrasso, a Republican and the head of the chamber’s environment committee, said Pruitt would improve the EPA by reforming and modernizing it.

Only one Republican, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, voted against Pruitt. Two Democrats from energy-producing states, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, voted for his confirmation.

Pruitt was to be sworn in later on Friday afternoon.

The nomination of Pruitt, who sued the EPA more than a dozen times on behalf of his oil-producing state and has doubted the science of climate change, sparked widespread concern in progressive circles, and has upset many former and current agency employees.

Nearly 800 former EPA staff urged the Senate to reject him in a letter this week, saying Pruitt had “shown no interest in enforcing environmental laws.” Earlier this month, about 30 current employees at an EPA regional office in Chicago joined a protest against Pruitt held by green groups.

Trump is likely to issue executive orders as soon as next week to reshape the EPA, sources said.

The Republican president has promised to kill former Democratic President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, currently held up in the courts, that aims to slash carbon emissions from coal and natural gas fired power plants.

Trump also wants to give states more authority over environmental issues by striking down federal regulations on drilling technologies and getting rid of an Obama rule that sought to clarify the EPA’s jurisdiction over streams and rivers.

‘OVERZEALOUS’ AGENCY

Conservatives warmly welcomed Pruitt’s confirmation.

“For far too long the EPA has acted in an overzealous manner, ignoring the separation of powers, the role of states, and the rights property owners,” said Nick Loris, an economist at the Heritage Foundation.

Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, however, said he was concerned that if the administration does not enforce emissions cuts such as outlined in the Clean Power Plan, it would increase U.S. pollution and harm the country’s leadership in international efforts to curb climate change.

Opponents of Pruitt also protested his ties to the energy industry. Republicans have the majority in the Senate, but Democrats spoke through Thursday night and Friday morning on the Senate floor, trying to extend debate on Pruitt until later in February when 3,000 emails between him and energy companies will likely be revealed by a judge.

An Oklahoma judge ruled this week that Pruitt will have to turn over the emails between his office and energy companies by Tuesday after a watchdog group, the Center for Media and Democracy, sued for their release. The judge will review the emails before releasing them.

Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer told reporters that Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell had moved to “strap blinders” on his fellow Republicans by not waiting for the release of Pruitt’s emails.

Environmentalists decried the approval. “If you don’t believe in climate science, you don’t belong at the EPA,” said May Boeve, the head of environmentalist group 350.org.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Richard Valdmanis, Bill Trott and Frances Kerry)

IMAGE: Attorney General Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Gage Skidmore / Flickr