Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who sued the US Environmental Protection Agency to block rules against toxic air pollution, is now the head of the agency.
Pruitt was confirmed in a Senate vote today, 52-46. His ties to climate-change deniers and the fossil-fuel industry (and the 13 lawsuits he has filed alongside oil and gas companies against the EPA) made him a particularly controversial appointee to lead the agency.
“Scott Pruitt represents what we environmental lawyers call an ‘imminent and substantial endangerment’ to our health and environment,” Ellen Spitalnik, a former EPA attorney who served Republican and Democratic administrations from 1980 to 2002, said in a statement. She along with nearly 800 former EPA employees signed a letter opposing Pruitt for administrator. “He threatens the very integrity of EPA and must not be allowed to continue shutting down environmental enforcement, disregarding science, and putting private interests above public good.”
In one scandal, Pruitt received a letter drafted by a major oil and gas company, put his letterhead on it, and sent it to the EPA as an official complaint from the Oklahoma attorney general’s office. In a report on the letter, the New York Times called it evidence of an “unprecedented, secretive alliance” between Pruitt and the oil and gas industry.
Among his lawsuits against the EPA were efforts to undermine the agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which went into effect in 2012. They limit the amount of mercury, cyanide, acid gas, and other toxic chemicals that power plants can legally emit. Pruitt also sued to block the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which curbs power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides but has yet to take effect—it is scheduled to be effective in May of this year. To finalize rules like these, the EPA always has to quantify the benefits: In studies of both rules, each were found to prevent the premature deaths of tens of thousands of Americans per year.
During Pruitt’s Senate confirmation hearing, John Barrasso, a Republican senator from Wyoming, remarked that Pruitt enjoys the support of the Cornwall Alliance, an Evangelical organization that considers the scientific consensus on climate change a product of “sin,” and environmentalism to be a “native evil.” Cataclysmic climate change can’t exist, the group says, because God’s intelligent design is flawless, and would not allow it to happen. The organization reportedly has financial ties to the US oil billionaire Koch brothers.
All this, combined with president Donald Trump’s promises to gut the EPA and early steps taken to prevent EPA employees from talking to the public, has current EPA employees bracing for the worst.
With Pruitt now in place as administrator, a budget for the EPA’s next fiscal year will likely be published soon, which will help determine whether the agency will still have the staff and funds necessary to enforce environmental and public health regulations.