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Senate Panel Grills Trump’s EPA Pick Over Energy Ties

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic Senators quizzed Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, over his energy industry ties during a contentious confirmation hearing on Wednesday that was briefly interrupted by protesters.

Pruitt, 48, is a climate change skeptic who sued the agency he intends to run more than a dozen times as Oklahoma’s top lawyer. He also chaired the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a group of conservative attorneys general that vehemently opposed a number of EPA regulations.

Both his opponents and his supporters believe his record indicates he will aggressively carry out Trump’s campaign vows to slash EPA regulation in order to boost industry, including U.S. oil and gas drilling and coal mining.

“Why are folks so concerned?… We’re concerned that we won’t be fine with the environment,” said Democratic Senator Tom Carper of Delaware. “You joined in a dozen or more lawsuits… going after the EPA. That’s why you have the kind of concern you’re witnessing here today.”

In prepared remarks that were interrupted by protesters shouting “There is no planet B”, Pruitt said he would seek to ensure environmental rules were effective without hurting development.

“Environmental regulations should not occur in an economic vacuum. We can simultaneously pursue the mutual goals of environmental protection and economic growth,” he said. He added that he would seek to give states more authority to regulate their own environmental issues.

Under questioning, Pruitt also said he would recuse himself from ongoing cases against the EPA if required to do so by the EPA’s ethics commission.

Trump has promised to refocus the EPA on its core values of protecting air and water quality, while scrapping many of President Barack Obama’s initiatives to combat global climate change by targeting carbon dioxide emissions.

Pruitt has said he believes climate change exists, but that the debate over what is causing climate change is not yet settled. U.S. government agencies said on Wednesday that world temperatures in 2016 hit a record high for the third year in a row, creeping closer to a ceiling set for global warming.

INDUSTRY TIES

For weeks, environmental groups have campaigned to urge lawmakers to block Pruitt’s nomination, saying he is doing the bidding of energy companies and industry groups that have contributed to his election campaigns.

During the hearing, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon showed a blown-up image of a letter Pruitt sent to the current EPA administrator several years ago opposing regulations limiting methane emissions from the energy sector, which he said had been written by Oklahoma company Devon Energy.

Pruitt responded by saying the letter was not sent on behalf of any one company but on behalf of an entire industry that is important to the state’s economy

New Jersey Democratic Senator Corey Booker later asked Pruitt if he had sent similar letters of behalf of Oklahoma citizens affected by pollution, citing statistics showing the state has among the highest asthma rates in the country.

“Did you even file one lawsuit on behalf of those kids?”

Republicans on the committee meanwhile focused their questions on how Pruitt will work to avoid pollution crises like the lead contamination crisis affecting Flint, Michigan, and criticized the Obama administration’s climate regulations.

Asked what would be his guiding philosophy as EPA administrator, he said: “I believe that the role of the regulator is to make things regular. Public participation, cooperative federalism…is central to restoring confidence and certainty to those that are regulated.”

He said he would also support the U.S. renewable fuels program, which requires biofuels like ethanol to be blended in gasoline, but said the program needed some tweaks.

Several conservative groups and political action committees supported Pruitt in advance of the hearing, including the PAC Freedom Works, America Rising Squared, a registered nonprofit backing conservative issues, and the National Association of Manufacturers.

Pruitt’s hearing is one of a series of sessions to vet Trump’s senior appointees since last week. Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, was questioned by lawmakers last week. His choice for Energy Secretary, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, is scheduled to testify on Thursday.

(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and David Gregorio)

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

Interior Nominee Zinke Would Review Obama’s Limits On Oil Drilling

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to run the Department of the Interior, Representative Ryan Zinke of Montana, said during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday that he would review President Barack Obama’s moves to limit oil and gas drilling in Alaska and some other parts of the country if confirmed.

“Yes,” he said in response to a question from Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska about whether he would review drilling limits on federal land in her state as head of the department.”The president-elect has said that we want to be energy independent. I can guarantee you it is better to produce energy domestically under reasonable regulation than overseas with no regulation.”

“We need an economy,” he added.

The Interior Department oversees territories covering a fifth of the United States’ surface from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico. This comprises sensitive wildlife habitats, iconic landscapes, rich deposits of oil, gas and coal and important pasturelands for ranchers.

The former Navy SEAL commander, an avid hunter and angler, emerged as a surprise pick to head the department, in part because he has embraced federal stewardship of national parks, forests and refuges. This diverges from the Republican Party’s official position to sell off acreage to states that might prioritize drilling, mining, ranching and forestry.

But he has also fought for increased energy development on federal lands, a position that has worried conservationists but which fits neatly with Trump’s vows to bolster the U.S. energy sector by scaling back regulation and opening up more publicly held land to development.

Over the last eight years, the Interior Department has sought to limit industry access to federal lands and played a key role in Obama’s agenda to combat climate change, as it proposed rules aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions from energy production on federal land.

Obama’s Interior Department banned new coal mining leases on federal property early in 2016. More recently the agency placed parts of the offshore Arctic and Atlantic off-limits to drilling and declared national monuments that protect large parts of Utah and Nevada from development.

Zinke said he believed Trump could “amend” Obama’s moves to declare millions of acres as national monuments.

Zinke was the first of three Cabinet heads Trump has chosen to oversee his environment and energy portfolio to face Senate scrutiny this week.

Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, was to testify on Wednesday, and Trump’s choice for Energy secretary, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, was to testify on Thursday.

CLIMATE DEBATE NOT SETTLED

Zinke also said during his hearing that he believes that humans contribute to global climate change but that there is still debate over what should be done about it. “I do not think it is a hoax,” he said.

Before running for the White House, Trump called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to weaken U.S. businesses, a position he has since defended.

In his opening remarks, Zinke struck a moderate tone, saying that he recognizes that some federal lands require strong protection. He also called himself an “unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt,” a former Republican president who pioneered public land conservation.

He said, however, that “a preponderance” of U.S. federal lands are better suited for “multiple use using best practices, sustainable policies and objective science” – a nod to U.S. industries that depend on access to public acreage.

As a first-term congressman, Zinke pushed to end the coal-lease moratorium, saying it had resulted in closed mines and job cuts, and he introduced a bill expanding tax credits for coal-burning power plants that bury carbon dioxide emissions underground.

(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Cynthia Osterman)

IMAGE: FILE PHOTO: U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke (R-MT) arrives for a meeting with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., December 12, 2016.  REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

Environmental Disaster: Trump Picks Oil Industry Ally To Run EPA

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Donald Trump will pick an ardent opponent of President Barack Obama’s measures to curb climate change as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a Trump transition team source said on Wednesday, a choice that enraged green activists and cheered the oil industry.

Trump’s choice, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, fits neatly with the Republican president-elect’s promise to cut back the EPA and free up drilling and coal mining, and signals the likely rollback of much of Obama’s environmental agenda.

Since becoming the top prosecutor for the major oil and gas producing state in 2011, Pruitt has launched multiple lawsuits against regulations put forward by the agency he is now poised to lead, suing to block federal measures to reduce smog and curb toxic emissions from power plants.

He is also a leading figure in a legal effort by several states to throw out the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of Obama’s climate change strategy that requires states to curb carbon output.

In an interview with Reuters in September, Pruitt said he sees the Clean Power Plan as a form of federal “coercion and commandeering” of energy policy and that his state should have “sovereignty to make decisions for its own markets.”

Pruitt, 48, has also said he is skeptical of climate change. In an opinion piece in an Oklahoma newspaper this year, he wrote that he believes the debate over global warming is “far from settled” and that scientists continue to disagree on the issue. An overwhelming majority of scientists around the world say manmade emissions are warming the planet.

The Obama administration finalized the Clean Power Plan in 2015 as a key part of meeting U.S. obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement, an accord among nearly 200 countries to curb global warming. Many scientists say warming is causing rising sea levels, drought, and an increase in ferocious storms.

Trump vowed during his campaign to pull the United States out of the Paris deal, saying it would put American businesses at a competitive disadvantage. Since the election, however, Trump has said he will keep an “open mind” about the climate deal, and also met with leading climate change activist and former Vice President Al Gore.

Trump, a real estate magnate who takes office on Jan. 20, is in the midst of building his administration and is holding scores of interviews at his office in New York.

Environmental groups and former Obama officials bristled at the choice of Pruitt.

“Scott Pruitt running the EPA is like the fox guarding the henhouse,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, which supported Trump’s opponent in the election, Democrat Hillary Clinton.

“Time and again, he has fought to pad the profits of Big Polluters at the expense of public health.”

Heather Zichal, a former Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change under Obama, said Trump’s choice was alarming.

“You can meet with Al Gore on Monday, pledge to keep Teddy Roosevelt’s environmental legacy alive on Tuesday, but if you nominate the Clean Power Act’s leading opponent to head the EPA on Wednesday, you’re making an unequivocal statement about the direction of your leadership,” she said.

But representatives of the oil industry, and some Republican lawmakers, were cheered by the pick.

Scott Segal, an energy industry lobbyist at Bracewell LLP called Pruitt “a measured and articulate student of environmental law and policy” who helped “keep EPA faithful to its statutory authority and respectful of the role of the states in our system of cooperative federalism.”

U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, also a climate change skeptic, said “Pruitt has fought back against unconstitutional and overzealous environmental regulations like Waters of the U.S. and the Clean Power Plan; he has proven that being a good steward of the environment does not mean burdening tax payers and businesses with red tape.”

Trump aides praised Pruitt’s conservative record.

“Attorney General Pruitt has a strong conservative record as a state prosecutor and has demonstrated a familiarity with laws and regulations impacting a large energy resource state,” one of the aides said on a transition team briefing call on Wednesday.

(Additional Reporting by David Shepardson; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Frances Kerry)

IMAGE: Scott Pruitt Attorney General of Oklahoma arrives to meet with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., December 7, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid