Meet Trump’s Interior, EPA and Energy picks

What we know from the confirmation hearings for Ryan Zinke, Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry.


Updated Feb. 2, 11 a.m.: Senate Republicans suspended the Environment and Public Works Committee’s rules, voting 11-0 to confirm Attorney General Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA despite a boycott by Democratic senators. Pruitt’s nomination heads to the full Senate for approval next week.

Updated Jan. 31, 11 a.m.: The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources voted to confirm Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., as secretary of the Interior with a 16-6 vote. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry was voted in as energy secretary, 16-7. Now that the Senate committee has voted, Zinke and Perry will go on to face a full U.S. Senate vote.

This week, Senate held confirmation hearings for three key leadership positions in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet that could have big implications for the West.

Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., sought the middle ground in federal land management in his bid for secretary of the Department of the Interior. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt had to answer for his 14 lawsuits against the agency he is now trying to lead, the Environmental Protection Agency. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry faced tough questions about his previous statements of doing away with the agency he is now looking to lead, the Department of Energy.

From left: Rick Perry, Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt.
Wikimedia Commons

Ryan Zinke, Interior Secretary

In his confirmation hearing for Secretary of the Interior, Zinke played the role of an all-ears moderate looking for better communication between D.C. and the states. Zinke, who was voted in for a second term to the House, explained to the Senate Energy and Resources Committee his commitment to keeping public lands accessible, empowering tribal sovereignty, and more collaboration with local communities. He aims to tackle the “mistrust” and even “hatred” that he says comes from bureaucratic mismanagement. 

Zinke positioned himself as a defender of public lands, but faced questions about federal land transfers, a core value of the Republican platform. In January, Zinke voted in favor of a rules package in Congress that included a provision that makes the federal transfer process easier and less expensive for states. When questioned, Zinke shrugged that off. “It has no weight unless it’s executed,” he said, adding that he would not have voted for the rule if it had not been tied to a larger package. Asked by Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., about the idea of privatizing the National Park Service, Zinke stated, “I am absolutely against transfer or sale of public land. I can’t be more clear.” 

During the hearing, Zinke said human-caused climate change is “indisputable,” but waffled on how much impact humans have. Zinke said he supports an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy development, and would encourage wind and solar development along with fossil fuels, but agreed with Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., that the war on coal via federal regulation is “real.” Zinke framed responses to addressing climate change and bolstering the economy as an either-or scenario. 

Zinke promised to support lifting the federal coal-leasing moratorium put in place by out-going Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in January 2016. He also supported removal of the recent Bureau of Land Management rules that protect streams and reduce methane leaks. Zinke characterized these as a rushed, one-size-fits-all approach that “came from Washington, not from the states.” He did give his support to permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. 

Zinke’s four-hour confirmation hearing on Jan. 18 remained relatively low-key compared to the tense hearings for Trump’s more controversial appointee picks like Pruitt, to head the EPA, and Perry, the Energy secretary.

Scott Pruitt, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator

As Pruitt sat for his senate confirmation hearing to head the EPA, eight lawsuits he’d brought against the agency as Oklahoma’s attorney general had yet to be resolved; he has sued the agency at least 14 times. Pruitt would not commit to recusing himself from pending cases if appointed to lead the EPA, raising concerns of scientists and senators.

During the hearing, Pruitt suggested that his trouble with the EPA was federal overreach, not regulation per se. Pruitt has twice challenged the agency’s limits on emissions of mercury from power plants, which the agency has estimated may prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths per year. One of Pruitt’s unsuccessful lawsuits questioned the agency’s finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare. Another unsuccessful lawsuit challenged the Cross State Air Pollution Rule, which protects downwind communities from other states’ smog and soot.

Pruitt also is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Clean Waters Rule and the Clean Power Plan, the federal government’s first regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. power plants, which emit more carbon dioxide each year than cars, trucks, and planes combined. Pruitt brought three lawsuits against the Clean Power Plan before it was finalized, and a fourth lawsuit in 2015 that still is ongoing. The Supreme Court placed a hold on the Clean Power Plan pending legal proceedings. 

Sanders challenged Pruitt’s tactic of “stalling-through-studying,” pointing to record numbers of earthquakes in Oklahoma caused by fossil fuel extraction, which the attorney general has not addressed. Barrasso credited Pruitt with resolving phosphorous pollution, caused by poultry farm runoff, in the Arkansas River. According to the Environmental Working Group, the opposite is true: Oklahoma and the EPA had already set phosphorous standards for the Arkansas River in 2003. According to The New York Times, in 2005 executives at poultry companies sued by Oklahoma’s previous attorney general over water pollution, and lawyers representing them, donated $40,000 in personal funds to Pruitt’s attorney general election campaign.

Instead of enforcing phosphorous standards after becoming attorney general in 2010, Pruitt stalled by commissioning further studies and extending the implementation period. 

Pruitt’s anti-science reputation includes a 2016 article in the National Review, where he and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange wrote, “[s]cientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.” Pruitt acknowledged climate change was real but said, “the ability to measure with precision human activity’s contribution is subject to debate.”

Perhaps most concerning, Pruitt’s ties to industry have included allowing energy industry lobbyists to draft letters to federal government representatives on attorney general letterhead, such as one 2011 letter to EPA head Lisa Jackson concerning regulation of methane gas emissions sent on Pruitt’s letterhead. As The New York Times discovered, 97 percent of the letter was written by officials at Devon Energy, an oil and gas company based in Oklahoma City.

During the hearing, Pruitt took credit for resolving a water rights litigation case with the Chickasaw Nation and Choctaw Nation, a position that Native American news source challenged, saying instead that Pruitt tried to dismiss the case.

Rick Perry, Energy Secretary 

As former Texas Gov. Rick Perry made the case to the Senate Energy and Resources Committee that he’s qualified to be secretary of the Energy Department, he first had to take back his earlier position that the department shouldn’t even exist. “I regret recommending its elimination,” Perry told the committee.

Later in his confirmation hearing, when Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, asked him about media reports that the Trump administration plans major cuts at the Energy Department, including eliminating the offices of energy efficiency and renewable energy, Perry suggested that the Trump team may follow his lead in coming to appreciate the importance of the Energy Department, which oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons, 17 research labs and programs that support energy efficiency and renewable energy. “Maybe they’ll have the same experience, and regret that they said that,” prompting the laughter of senators.

Throughout, Perry projected an image of an experienced, reasonable chief executive who will protect and listen to scientists and, borrowing a phrase often used by President Barack Obama, promote an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy. Perry, who oversaw a boom of wind power during his 14-year tenure as Texas governor, promised to prioritize renewable energy as well as fossil fuel. 

Perry’s presentation was clearly designed to dispel harsh criticism he has received from environmental groups for his promotion of fossil fuels, as well as concerns that a Trump administration might target government scientists and other civil servants involved in climate change.

Perry responded strongly when asked by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., about a Trump transition team questionnaire that sought names of Energy Department employees involved in climate change. “I didn’t approve it. I don’t approve of it. I don’t need that information. I don’t want that information. That is not how I manage.” 

Like other key designees for Trump’s cabinet, Perry projected a moderate position on climate change. He acknowledged that the climate is changing and “some of it is caused by manmade activity.” (In fact, there is broad scientific consensus that people are the main drivers of climate change by burning fossil fuels and eliminating forests.)

But Perry stressed that he is not willing to “compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy or American jobs” to address climate change. 

Still, it was a significant change from his 2010 book Fed Up where he derided former Vice President Al Gore’s climate change crusade as a “contrived phony mess.” 

Republicans like Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, urged Perry to think of towns like Craig, Colorado, where residents are reliant on fossil fuel industries. But Democrats pushed back, stressing that climate change already is hurting their states’ economies by increasing damage from wildfires, harming shellfish, worsening drought and reducing snowpack needed for water supplies for agriculture and cities. “I guarantee you today, we are compromising economic growth because of our overdependence of fossil fuels,” Cantwell said.

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