We generally believe that presidents have wide latitude in choosing the members of their cabinet. However, some nominees are so unqualified or philosophically unfit that senators should use their constitutional powers to reject them.
Scott Pruitt, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, is one of those nominees.
As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt has been openly hostile to the EPA’s mission of protecting human health by regulating dangerous pollutants, such as mercury and carbon dioxide, a major contributor to climate change. Someone who has repeatedly tried to prevent the EPA from doing its job surely should be disqualified from overseeing the agency.
Pruitt will no doubt face numerous questions about his anti-environmental actions in Oklahoma during his confirmation hearings, which are scheduled to begin Wednesday. Given the length and consistency of that record, there is little chance he can make a convincing case that he will preserve the EPA’s vital watchdog role.
Pruitt, along with several other Republican attorneys general, has long been hostile to the federal government, calling policies such as the Clean Water Act unwarranted intrusion into state affairs. He is especially beholden to businesses, particularly in the fossil fuel sector. He regularly accepted industry-drafted letters and talking-points as his own, a lengthy New York Times investigation from 2014 documented.
Pruitt argues that states, not the federal government, should regulate pollutants within their borders. Pollution, of course, does not respect state (or international) boundaries. Mainers have suffered from asthma and other respiratory ailments because of pollution from power plants, manufacturing plants and vehicles produced in states to our west and south. That’s why there need to be federal standards.
Critics of the EPA tend to focus on rules and laws that the agency is involved in writing that protect little-known animals or landscapes, such as wetlands. But, the agency’s primary mission is to safeguard the health of Americans through landmark laws such as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, championed by former Maine Sen. Ed Muskie.
EPA rules to regulate the emissions of ozone and particulate matter from power plants are expected to prevent 15,000 heart attacks, 400,000 asthma attacks and 34,000 premature deaths in the eastern U.S., including 60 in Maine, each year. Pruitt’s office was among the many entities that sued to block the rule. An appeals court rejected the rules in 2012, but that ruling was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Pruitt also challenged EPA rules to, for the first time, regulate the emissions of toxins, such as mercury and arsenic, from power plants. The rules will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 asthma attacks each year. The EPA estimates 20 lives will be saved in Maine each year. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rules last year.
Pruitt is a climate change denier. In a May 2016 column in National Review, he argued that the science around climate change is “far from settled.” This is untrue.
A review of published, peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals finds that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and “extremely likely” due to human activities, NASA says. Last year was likely the warmest on record and the 10 hottest years on record have all happened since 1998.
Still, Pruitt took the lead in suing the EPA to stop the Clean Power Plan, federal rules meant to restrict carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The rules were put on hold by the Supreme Court last year while the states’ lawsuit is resolved in federal court. Sen. Susan Collins was one of three Republican senators to vote against blocking the rules.
Trump has vowed to scrap the rules but numerous companies and states, including some of those suing to stop them, are moving ahead with plans to comply.
We are under no illusions that Trump is suddenly going to become a champion of environmental protection, even if that is synonymous with protecting human life. But Pruitt is so hostile to the EPA’s core mission that putting him in charge would move the United States dangerously backwards.
Collins, who has a long record of pro-environment and health bills and votes in the Senate, and Sen. Angus King should oppose his nomination.