After years of discord and conflict with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the oil and gas industry may finally have a ringer headed to the director’s chair at the agency.
Oklahoma Attorney General E. Scott Pruitt, named by President-elect Donald Trump to head the agency, is in tight with companies such as Devon Energy Corp. (NYSE: DVN). Pruitt fought for the Keystone XL Pipeline, has sued the EPA repeatedly and is a climate change skeptic.
Pruitt has also been a frequent thorn in President Barack Obama’s administration, filing the first lawsuit challenging implementation of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. On LinkedIn, he calls himself a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda, and is leading a multistate lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Dodd-Frank financial law.”
On Twitter, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, the state’s former attorney general, lauded the appointment from a fellow oil and gas producing state.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-WA, called Pruitt the wrong choice, as did former regional EPA administrator Alan Steinberg, who served under President George W. Bush.
Critics seized on Pruitt’s political contributions, which they said show he is in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry. The industry is his second-largest political contributor behind lawyers and lobbyists. However, over the course of his political career, industry contributions made up less than 9% to his campaign war chest.
In 2014, the New York Times took Pruitt to task for a letter he sent to the EPA in 2011. The letter said that the agency was overestimating the amount of air pollution caused by natural gas wells drilled in Oklahoma.
The newspaper reported that Pruitt’s letter was written by Devon’s lawyers and delivered to him by Devon’s chief of lobbying and was substantially unchanged.
Christopher Carr, chair of the environment and energy group for law firm Morrison & Foerster, said he doesn’t expect many dramatic changes for natural gas because the shale revolution is already in full force.
Carr said that Obama’s clean power plan, for instance, recognized natural gas a prominent part of power generation for the next two decades “because of the math and the facts.”
“You can’t scale up wind and solar fast enough,” he said.
Pruitt and Trump are also unlikely to disrupt renewable energy sources such as wind. Trump is adamant about improving infrastructure and creating jobs — and wind power requires a great deal of labor.
“It’s hard to me imagining the incoming administration reaching out to affirmatively hamstring or disfavor renewables,” he said.
Instead, the next administration will follow a similar energy sourcing mix — the familiar “all of the above” approach, Carr said.
Pruitt’s hard line on the EPA and his comfort with oil and gas companies brought a mix of elation to hydrocarbon producers and “horror” to activists concerned with climate change. What emerged was a sketch of a no-man’s land on the appointment, which must be confirmed in the Senate.
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” said H. Sterling Burnett, a research fellow for environment and energy policy and The Heartland Institute, a conservative organization that champions free markets.
“Pruitt has sued the Environmental Protection Agency over its Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule, its Waters of the United States rule, and the Clean Power Plan,” Burnett said.
“So it seems there is hope the next administration will finally rein in the runaway EPA – by withdrawing or rewriting those and other rules in a way that respects freedom and economic progress, or by deciding not to defend the rules in court. One small appointment for Trump, one giant leap for environmental sanity.”
Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. said that with Pruitt at the helm of the EPA, the “scale [will] likely radically tilt against the Clean Power Plan and Regional Haze.”
“Pruitt has fiercely opposed federal environmental regulations historically,” the firm said.
Craig E. Richardson, president of the Energy & Environment Legal Institute, said Trump will need to gear up for battle “draining the EPA swamp.”
“Pruitt has led the charge in recent years to confront head-on the enormous federal regulatory overreach proposed by the EPA as epitomized by the Clean Power Plan and Waters of the U.S. rule,” Richardson said.
He predicted that Pruitt will be met with the “utmost resistance from an entrenched and well-funded green industrial complex.”
Environmentalists were indeed recoiling from Pruitt.
Heather Zichal, former climate and energy adviser to President Barack Obama, said that in government, “personnel is policy.”
“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 Plan’s leading opponent to head the EPA on Wednesday, you're making an unequivocal statement about the direction of your leadership,” Zichal said in a statement. “Meetings and speeches are quick and easy greenwashing, but personnel really counts.”
Zichal called Pruitt a “proud climate denier” and an ally of the biggest polluters.
Pruitt has questioned scientific evidence for climate change and resisted science-based rules that protect our air and water from pollution, said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
Pruitt would be potentially disastrous “for vital science-based policies that protect public health.” Kimmel urged Senators not to confirm Pruitt.
“As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt has repeatedly sued the EPA in an attempt to stop the agency from carrying out its work,” He said. “Pruitt is supported by the very industries he would be responsible for overseeing, particularly fossil fuel producers.”
Pruitt’s statements and actions are in direct conflict with the job to which he has been nominated, Kimmel said. If he is approved, his tenure as administrator would devastate the EPA’s ability to carry out its mission to ensure “Americans have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, healthy communities and safe workplaces.”
Darren Barbee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.