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Scott Pruitt's Testimony Before a Split Senate Committee Was Rowdy but Ultimately Unsurprising

Half the senators lobbed the EPA chief softball questions; the other half blasted his attempts at deregulation.
Scott Pruitt testifies before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on December 7th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Scott Pruitt testifies before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on December 7th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Earlier today, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt answered questions posed to him by members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. The hearing was Pruitt's first before a Senate committee (and his second before Congress). It comes after an eventful year for the EPA: one marked by repeals of major Obama-era regulations, hefty proposed budget cuts, and reports of terrible morale among workers.

"His leadership is vastly different from that of the last two predecessors," John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, said in his opening remarks.

Senators frequently brought up the EPA's handling of highly polluted Superfund sites; its planned withdrawal of the Clean Power Plan and changes to the Waters of the United States rule; the effects of its policies on state economies; and its use of science. Democratic lawmakers got in a few surprising zingers, most notably when Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) played a 2016 radio interview with Pruitt during which he called President Donald Trump a threat to the Constitution. ("I don't think that today at all," Pruitt said afterward.) But beyond that, the questions were pretty unremarkable: Republicans praised the EPA's new direction under Pruitt, and Democrats hammered home their belief that regulatory repeal would harm Americans' health, particularly children and minorities.

Tom Carper (Delaware), the top Democrat in the Environment and Public Works Committee, accused Pruitt of "repeatedly taking credit for [Superfund site] clean-ups under President Obama's administration, all while proposing to cut the program by 30 percent." Barrasso later held up a copy of the Washington Post, which he said was published on January 26th, supposedly showing a story about "the good job being done by the administrator of the EPA in addressing Superfunds." (Pacific Standard was not able to find a Post story about Superfund sites published on the date Barrasso cited, but a story published near that date reported that "so far ... Pruitt has few concrete results to tout" on Superfund clean-ups.)

Carper blasted Pruitt for "choosing to wage a war on climate science" at a time when "climate change is clearly affecting every corner of our country." Later, Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota) basically gave his allotted five minutes to Pruitt, in order to allow the EPA chief to defend his decision to bar scientists who are receiving EPA grants from serving as advisors to the EPA. Pruitt said the policy guards science advisers' independence; critics argue that the move keeps top experts from serving the EPA.

Senators from Nebraska, Iowa, and Oklahoma credited Pruitt's rollback of regulation for reducing unemployment in their states. Senators from New Jersey, Illinois, and Massachusetts worried about the removal of rules and programs including the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard, the Lead Risk Reduction Program, the Clean Power Plan, and the National Fuel Standard (the latter of which Pruitt re-assured senators he thinks is "essential").

Even the degree to which Pruitt is aware of states' environmental affairs seemed up for debate. "Since taking the reins at the EPA, you have shown you are not afraid to go out and engage with the American people," Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) told him, pointing to an August meeting he had with agriculture industry representatives in Des Moines.

"Will you come to New Jersey?" Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) asked, adding that he was "alarmed" by proposed cuts to the Superfund program and wanted Pruitt to first visit his state's Superfund sites.

"Absolutely," Pruitt assured the senator.