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EPA pick Scott Pruitt appeared before his Senate confirmation panel as a reserved man of the law, someone with a respect for process and a commitment to meeting agency deadlines.
Several times President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee characterized the proper role of the EPA as a partner for the states, with states taking the lead.
But when asked about California’s traditional role taking a lead on vehicle pollution rules, he demurred. Here is the initial exchange on the issue. Kamala Harris, attorney general for California until she was sworn in two weeks ago as a Democratic senator, addressed Pruitt, who is the attorney general for Oklahoma.
Harris: You are familiar with the Clean Air Act? Yes?
Pruitt: I am.
Harris: And as you may know, Section 209(b) of the Clean air Act recognizes California’s authority to issue air pollution standards for new motor vehicles that go above and beyond the federal standard. And EPA has historically recognized California’s authority to issue new motor vehicle pollution standards that go above federal standards.
Will you commit then to upholding that same standard, to recognizing California’s authority to issue its own new motor vehicle air pollution standards?
Pruit: You know, Senator, as you indicated, California was actually regulating before EPA was even created, which is why the California waiver exists under statute––
Harris: Do you agree to uphold that same standard that has been held by your previous administrators?
Pruitt: I agree to review that as each administrator before me has. It has been granted at times and––
Harris: Do you agree to uphold it? Reviewing and upholding are two different points.
Pruitt: Senator, as you know, administrators in the past have not granted the waiver, and in fact have granted the waiver — that’s a review process that would be conducted ––
Harris: What is your intention, sir?
Pruitt: I don’t know that, without going through the process to determine that, Senator, and would not want to presume the outcome.
This is an issue important beyond California. Other states are permitted to opt for California’s vehicle regulations. This ends up dictating the automobile market, something that has rankled some in the auto industry for decades.
It’s not uncommon for states representing 40 percent of the automobile market to choose California rules.
California’s ability to enforce its clean car programs was delayed for almost two years when its Clean Air Act waiver was denied by the George W. Bush administration. California sued with 13 other states to recover its power.
After the exchange about its pollution authority with Harris and Pruitt on Wednesday, the California Air Resources Board issued a statement.
“Over the past 50 years, EPA has granted California more than 100 waiver determinations, and those determinations were issued under the administration of both parties. California’s unique ability to set and enforce its own standards on mobile sources is critical for California to protect public health, and has benefitted the nation.”
The issue came up a second time in the EPA hearing. This time it was raised by Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat:
Markey: Will you support the statutory right of states to do more to reduce dependence on foreign oil, reduce global warming pollution, save money at the gas pumps and create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the clean car job business?
Pruitt: I think, Senator, generally the answer to that would be yes, but with regard to the California waiver that was discussed earlier, that is an ajudicatory process that I can’t prejudge what would occur there. As you know, previous administrators have either granted or denied that based on a record that was made.
I do respect that and do believe states have a very important role, I have acknowledged that today, with respect to the Chesapeake Bay situation as an example. So I will look at that issue, like others, to make sure it is respected, but also is consistent with the statutory framework you have outlined.
Markey: Do you support the law that says California has a right to ask for a waiver?
Pruitt: It is statutory and it is something the administrator has an obligation to do. So yes, I do respect it.
Markey: Do you support the current California waiver for greenhouse gas standards?
Pruitt: Senator, that is what would be evaluated and it would be very difficult and we shouldn’t prejudge the outcome, in that regard, if confirmed as administrator.
Markey: So you are questioning the current waiver, you don’t think they are entitled to the current waiver?
Pruitt: The waiver is something that is granted on an annual basis and the administrator would be responsible for making that decision.
Markey: So you say you are going to, would review it?
Markey: And when you say review, I hear undo the rights of the states.
Markey accused Pruitt of making a career of working to eviscerate clean air and water protections.
At least one senator sounded surprised to hear such a characterization. John Boozman, a Republican from Arkansas, upriver from Oklahoma, shook his head remembering a dispute that lasted for more than a decade: the flushing of a pollutant, phosphorus, into the Illinois River watershed.
“I appreciate you and [the Arkansas attorney general] getting stuff done,” Boozman said. “On the other hand the idea that you were soft… In fact I would say the agreement is too restrictive.”
In the hearing, Pruitt expressed little desire to dismantle the agency he hopes to lead. He repeatedly recognized the need for clean air and water.
He stated a belief in climate change, but did not accept the scientific consensus that the activity of humans has caused the carbon loading responsible for it, saying only that humans have had a part.
Carbon dioxide has been formally recognized by the EPA as harmful to the people of the United States. Pruitt referred to that as “the law of the land.” Pressed on whether he would attempt to reverse that, Pruitt said, “there is nothing I know that would cause a review at this point.”