Will Senate Republicans Block Trump's Disastrous EPA Pick?

Scott Pruitt is the one Trump cabinet nominee being strongly opposed by environmentally-minded conservatives

Scott Pruitt, attorney general of Oklahoma, at his office in Oklahoma City, July 29, 2014 Credit: Nick Oxford/The NY Times/Redux

In a couple of weeks, 2016 will officially be declared the warmest year on record. In September, atmospheric carbon levels pushed past 400 parts per million, the so-called climate "tipping point," and the irreversible effects of global warming – mass extinctions, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, deforestation – are already underway. But you wouldn't know it if you talked to the men nominated for Donald Trump's cabinet, many of whom deny in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is occurring and is caused by human activity.

For secretary of state, Trump has settled on the CEO of ExxonMobil, the oil and gas conglomerate whose in-house scientists recognized the threat of global warming more than 40 years ago and which subsequently spent millions of dollars spreading disinformation about the phenomenon. His proposed heads of the Departments of Energy, the Interior, Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services have all at different points expressed skepticism about the existence and causes of climate change.

Former Republican congressman Bob Inglis, now executive director of the conservative environmentalist group RepublicEN.org, says he's fine with most of those nominees. Tillerson, he notes optimistically, is in favor of a carbon tax.

There's only one nominee "of great concern" to his organization, he says: Scott Pruitt, Trump's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt unlocked a new level of special-interest coziness by signing and sending to the EPA a letter drafted by the state's largest oil and gas company accusing the agency of overestimating the company's contribution to air pollution. He formed a clandestine alliance with other like-minded attorneys general and energy companies around the country encouraging them to do the same. Oh, and he sued the agency – twice.

"We're very concerned about the EPA nomination," says David Jenkins, executive director of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship. "We think that's only fair to let the nominee speak, and you don't want to prejudge them by what their activities were in completely different types of roles – but we want to hear how they answer questions on some of the key issues, whether it's climate or the Waters of the U.S. rule. A lot of these issues are of concern to us." (One of the two times Pruitt sued the EPA it was over the 2015 rule, which brought 60 percent of the nation's rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands under EPA control in a bid to reduce pollution.)

"He seems to have passion to undo the work of the EPA, rather than to do the work of the EPA," says Inglis.

"It really is a crazy thought to have somebody who disputes the science of climate change heading up the EPA," he says. "It's like having the president of Delta Airlines be somebody who doesn't believe it's possible for humans to fly. It doesn't work."

One of the problems for environmentally-minded Republicans like Jenkins and Inglis is they have often had to rely on Democrats to be their congressional champions – and there just aren't enough of them left to block Trump's selections.

Republicans hold a 52-to-48 majority in the Senate, which means it will take three of them to defeat a confirmation, if not more, since it's not a given that Democrats will unite against the nominee. (Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin said this week that Pruitt has an "impressive resume.") Meanwhile, the ranks of moderate Senate Republicans are rapidly thinning. Two of the moderate Republicans who in the past environmentalists could count on to at least listen – Mark Kirk and Kelly Ayotte – were voted out in November. That doesn't leave many options for groups across the ideological spectrum concerned about climate change.

"The senators that we tend to rely on for sort of carrying the water in terms of environmental issues, the ones that are left, it's people like Susan Collins, like Lamar Alexander, Lindsey Graham. And on some issues – renewable energy and stuff like – you've got people like Sen. [Dean] Heller," Jenkins says. "It's really going to depend on the nominee's answers to some questions. I could see someone like a Lamar Alexander being difficult if [an EPA nominee] didn't seem good on protecting the East Coast from air pollution, for example, because Lamar is very concerned about air pollution and its impact on the Smokey Mountains. ... Maybe even John McCain, although he has not been talking much about climate for a while."

In general, though, Jenkins and Inglis agree that deference toward the president-elect will probably win out. "On the Republican side, I would think at least the initial inclination would be to give the incoming president the people that person wants. It has to rise to a pretty big threshold for Republicans to oppose nominees," Jenkins says.

Grimly, Inglis draws on the disastrous government response to Hurricane Katrina as a best-case scenario. "I will make this prediction for you: If he's confirmed, expect a 'Brownie' moment pretty soon – remember 'You're doing a heckuva job here, Brownie'?" Inglis says, laughing. "Expect that fairly soon into his tenure. What happened with George W. Bush and Brownie is we found out that Brownie was not doing a heck of a job. And there was a correction. So even if Scott Pruitt is confirmed, expect there will be pretty soon a correction – that he will be found out to be not suited for the agency that is designed to protect our air and water and soil."