Scott Pruitt: A “Breath of Fresh Air”?

By Jean McWilliams

Jean McWilliams is a teacher and pro-science advocate from the Philadelphia area. 

Scott Pruitt at this week's hearing. 

Scott Pruitt at this week's hearing. 

In his book, The Future of Life (2001), eminent scientist, Edward O. Wilson, satirizes the rhetoric of two groups that hold opposing attitudes about environmentalism.  He re-creates monologues within each group, employing the incendiary language each uses when referring to  the other,  illustrating the unproductive nature of name-calling, hasty generalizations, and false claims that characterize environmental debates.  Over the last several weeks, I’ve thought of Wilson’s argument as I listened to public comment in the press and discourse  on social media from both sides of the environmental argument,  as each side reacted to  Donald Trump’s nominee to head the EPA, Oklahama’s  Attorney-General, Scott Pruitt.

I watched on Wednesday as Mr. Pruitt presented his case for confirmation before the Senate Envrionment and Public Works Committee. I vowed  to sift through the damning criticism of Pruitt’s detractors and the inflated praise of his advocates  to assess for myself whether Pruitt was the right man for the EPA, whether he was as National Review claims “a breath of fresh air.”

In the course of the confirmation hearing, Pruitt broke with Trump’s position that climate change is a “hoax,” yet, despite doggedly persistent questioning by Senator Sanders, the Attorney General  fell short of acknowledging  that climate change is indeed caused by human activity. In the past, he has argued that the debate over climate change belongs in classrooms and public forums, not in determinations of public policy. As Oklahoma’s Chief Law Enforcer, Pruitt vigorously defended states’ rights and consistently opposed  EPA’s regulations on carbon emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants, his objections to Obama’s Clean Power Plan,  ostensibly emerging from his opposition to “coercive federalism.”  Pruitt asserted in a statement last year that "The Clean Power Plan is an unlawful attempt to expand federal bureaucrats' authority over states' energy economies in order to shutter coal-fired power plants and eventually other sources of fossil-fuel generated electricity.”   

In the course of the hearing, Senators from states heavily invested in the use of fossil fuels praised  Pruitt’s efforts to oppose heavy and costly regulations imposed on states by the EPA.  What Senator Sheldon Whitehorse of Rhode Island highlighted in his questioning of Pruitt, however, was a long and sometimes shadowy history of financial ties between Mr. Pruitt and the fossil fuel industry, citing evidence of contributions to Pruitt’s  political career from major players in the energy community.

What I saw on Wednesday as I watched the Senate confirmation hearings was a smart, unflappable, articulate attorney arguing for commonsense restraint on federal government’s reach into the energy economies of individual states. I listened to Senators representing states where jobs and economic growth are tied to reducing environmental regulations.  There were moments in his testimony when I found myself sympathizing with coal miners who had lost jobs and  small businesses struggling to meet the demands of environmental regulations.  I can appreciate the need to support these communities and the importance of weighing the necessity and consequences of environmental regulation.

But then I remembered why we were there – to confirm an administrator for Environmental Protection, an individual charged with enforcing laws passed by Congress to protect human health and the long term survival of the planet. Pruitt’s skepticism over climate change in the face of incontrovertible scientific evidence, published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and endorsed by 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists, is alarming and dangerous. His belief in the preeminence of states’ rights jeopardizes the ability of federal agencies to act on behalf of the common good in circumstances that transcend the interests of any one state. Waterways don’t stop at state lines and poor air quality doesn’t fade at the border. 

Also of major concern is  Pruitt’s historically long and  deep financial entanglements with the fossil fuel industry which cast doubts on his capacity to enforce environmental policy with objectivity.   Pruitt stated in his testimony, “First, we must reject the false paradigm that if you are pro-energy, you are anti-environment and if you are pro-environment, you are anti-energy. I utterly reject the narrative." Yet, his record of enforcement in Oklahoma suggests otherwise.  Pruitt, himself an EPA skeptic,  vigorously opposed the EPA, suing it repeatedly as Attorney General.  I wonder then how vigorously he will protect the agency he seems so eager to undermine.

I am not a trained scientist, but I am a science enthusiast, a consumer of science,  a believer in science.  I am drawn to inquiry, to reason, to seeking evidence and drawing conclusions.  I approached this nominee from a scientific stance of inquiry.  In the course of the last month, I have read all I could find on both sides of the Scott Pruitt debate.  On Wednesday, I listened to the man himself as he appeared before the EPW on national television.  

Yes, I  can agree that the 10th amendment is an integral part of our Constitution.   Yes, I  can agree that economic growth and commerce are critical to the welfare of all Americans.  But, the right to breathe clean air and drink clean water and the need to leave our descendants a planet not ravaged by global warming - these rights are fundamental to our survival.   Ensuring these rights will require discipline, restraint, innovation and paradigm shifts that honor scientific truth over the expedience of unfettered capitalism. In considering the long view forecasted by the scientific community, Scott Pruitt hardly qualifies as the “breath of fresh air” we need going forward.