WASHINGTON — EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt pushed back on criticism that his agency has bent to industry influence, telling a congressional committee Thursday that science remains “essential” to the promulgation of policies and regulations affecting the environment and public health.
Several Democrats on the House Commerce and Energy Committee assailed Pruitt on a number of fronts including his decision to roll back the Clean Power Plan aimed at curbing carbon emissions, his revamping of EPA advisory boards to include more industry voices, and the issuance of rules environmental groups say could allow EPA to ignore the severe health risks some chemicals pose.
“EPA has all the signs of an agency captured by industry,” Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., told Pruitt during the hearing. Regulations were being redrawn “at the behest of special interests" and EPA was “dismissing the science" that his own agency has presented, he said.
But pressed to affirm his support of sound science, Pruitt stood firm.
"Science is essential to our review of (air) pollutants. It’s essential as we make decisions on Superfund sites. It’s essential as we review pesticides under statutory authority," he shot back. "It will remain central and core to what we do."
It was the first appearance before the committee by Pruitt. As Oklahoma's attorney general he sued the agency he now runs 14 times to stop the Obama administration on a myriad of air and water rules he deemed an overreach.
Since his confirmation in February, Pruitt has generated hostility from the left and praise from the right for instituting a "back-to-basics" approach on protecting water, air and soil that has pivoted the agency away from broader agendas of climate change and toward more state-friendly priorities like Superfund cleanup.
Thursday's hearing exposed the sharp partisan divisions over environmental policy between the Trump and Obama administrations.
For each broadside Democrats launched at Pruitt highlighting his ties to the petro-chemical industry or his efforts to downplay the contributions of EPA's veteran staff, a Republican lawmaker was quick to heap praise for charting a collaborative direction with governors.
"You see states as stakeholders and partners not as subordinates," Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. "Thank you for going to places like Oklahoma and North Dakota and other states in the middle of real America that are affected by what for the last eight years has simply been a dictatorship by the EPA."
In a less friendly exchange, California Democrat Rep. Jerry McNerney asked Pruitt if he’s as committed to preventing new toxic waste sites from sprouting up as he is in cleaning them existing ones.
"In your rush to eliminate regulations, that's exactly what you're doing — creating the opportunity for new Superfund sites," he said.
"I wouldn't interpret it that way," Pruitt responded.
Pruitt is not just trying to roll back some key Obama policies like the Clean Power Plan, Obama's signature effort to combat climate change by reducing carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. He's also trying to transform the culture of an agency he and his allies have described as tone-deaf and out of control.
The EPA, for example, is doing away with the “sue-and-settle” approach that Pruitt said improperly allowed the Obama administration to circumvent laws by rewriting regulations behind closed doors with friendly environmental groups who filed lawsuits.
The agency also has rewritten membership rules for the agency’s advisory boards, so that both industry advocates and academics from Midwestern and Mountain states — which Pruitt said were under-represented — have greater influence when counseling agency leaders on new rules.
And he’s adopting a “red team/blue team” model designed to challenge climate change assumptions that global warming is occurring and humans are the primary cause — a view endorsed both by the vast majority of scientists and by a massive federal report the White House issued earlier this month.
Pruitt told committee members he's proud of what he's accomplished so far, calling it "consequential and exciting." And there were moments where Democrats were appreciative of the promises he made to them on helping solve issues in their communities, such as toxic sites and lead-tainted water.
"This dialogue that begins today is important to me," he said. "I know that these are very difficult issues that we handle at the agency. I seek to engage in a civil discourse with you. I seek to have a thoughtful discussion about how we can advance the objectives of what you pass in the statutes."