Meet the Climate Change Skeptics Defending Trump's EPA Pick, Scott Pruitt

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Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, President-elect Donald Trump's pick as head of the Environmental Protectional Agency, meets with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 6. Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

This story originally appeared on Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma's attorney general and Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, has been a longtime opponent of federal environmental regulations and a denier of climate change. Not surprisingly, as Pruitt's confirmation hearing approaches, many of his most prominent supporters are on the fringe of leading scientific consensus on climate change, and many are closely aligned with the fossil fuel industry that the EPA is responsible for regulating.

"As far as we can tell there’s literally nothing in his record showing any indication of protecting the environment in any way that matters," Natural Resources Defense Council’s director of government affairs David Goldston said on a call with reporters on Wednesday.

Democrats and environmentalists have accused Pruitt of being too extreme to lead an agency charged with protecting public health and the environment. They point to his work as Oklahoma's attorney general: Since 2011 he has sued the EPA 13 times and has led the effort to overturn new water regulations and Obama’s signature climate policy.

Six Senate Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee have demanded more details from Pruitt on his connection to groups such as the Koch-funded Freedom Partners, which donated at least $175,000 to the non-profit Rule of Law Defense Fund, the organization that Pruitt and other attorneys general used to coordinate lawsuits against the EPA under the Obama administration. The New York Times also found direct coordination between Pruitt's office and the Oklahoma oil and gas company Devon Energy to weaken EPA oversight. 

"This is a frightening moment,” said Harvard University professor Naomi Oreskes, who’s written extensively on fossil fuel interests in politics, in December.

“We have seen in the last few weeks how the reins of the federal government are being handed over to the fossil fuel industry."

01_09_pruitt_01 Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, President-elect Donald Trump's pick as head of the Environmental Protectional Agency, meets with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 6. Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

And now, a new dark-money group has popped up to further counter attacks. Politico acquired a flier from Protecting America Now, a new 501(c)(4) that solicits anonymous contributions anywhere from $25,000 to $500,000 to confront “anti-business, environmentalist extremists.” Their website is registered by an Oklahoma public affairs firm that counts oil and utility companies and Senator Jim Inhofe among its clients. Pruitt's other defenders include prominent climate deniers, a Koch-supported organization, and oil-funded groups and lobbyists. 

Here are some of his most prominent advocates and what they are saying:

The Denier-in-Chief:  Jim Inhofe is a four-term senator from Oklahoma, former chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and the author of “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.”

  • In his words: “Scott Pruitt is the ideal candidate to lead the EPA,” Inhofe said in a statement after meeting Pruitt on Monday. “Pruitt has seen first-hand the abuses of power at the hands of this agency and has fought back to ensure environmental quality without sacrificing jobs.”
  • What this means: Inhofe is considered to be the most outspoken climate change denier in all of national politics and is now on the cusp of seeing his ultimate wish realized: A hollowed-out EPA that has no interest in considering the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions. A fellow Oklahoman, with a long and friendly relationship with the oil and gas industry, his top contributions come from Koch Industries and the coal company Murray Energy. He also gets plenty of dollars from Devon Energy and ExxonMobil. Inhofe makes regular appearances at Heartland Institute conferences that promote climate change as a conspiracy and scientific fraud

The Legitimizer: Jeb Bush tapped Pruitt to help put together his 2015 campaign policy plan, “Putting Washington In Its Place.”

  • In his words: “The far left has tried to distort Pruitt's views in a lame attempt to make him into an anti-science boogeyman,” Bush wrote in a December CNN op-ed. “The Scott Pruitt I know is far from it. Unlike liberals who want to shut down any rational debate about climate change, Pruitt has acknowledged human impact on the climate and supports a robust discussion about its effects and what the government should and shouldn't do to address it.”
  • What it means: Bush presents a more moderate picture of Pruitt than the hard line reputation he’s cultivated by suing the EPA repeatedly over its regulations. The former GOP presidential hopeful, who waffled quite a bit on science himself during the presidential primaries, drew the most oil and gas donations of all the candidates, particularly from ExxonMobil executives, before he quit the race. ThinkProgress notes that Bush’s latest gig is consulting for the lobbying firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, whose clients include Chevron and Consol Energy.

Marshalling the Defense: America Rising Squared is an arm of the Republican super-PAC, America Rising, which launched a campaign to target environmentalists earlier this year.

  • In their words: "AR2 is putting money behind a new digital ad geo-targeting Capitol Hill showing how Senate Dems' plans to obstruct President-elect Trump's cabinet nominees flies in the face of their own words," Communications Director Jeremy Adler wrote in an email. "So we roll the tape!"
  • What it means: The group launched confirmpruitt.com and an ad campaign on his behalf in states where five Democrats face re-election in 2018, according to Politico. This is the same group that deployed campaign-styled trackers to follow high-profile environmentalists, including Democratic donor Tom Steyer and climate activist and journalist Bill McKibben. Their funding is secret. Like Bush, the group has fought back against accusations that Pruitt is too extreme and too beholden to the energy industry to lead the EPA by accusing the left of also having conflicts of interest. In response to Senate Democrats’ queries about Pruitt’s industry connections, AR Squared's website said it was a “partisan fishing expedition.”

The Climate Deniers: This trifecta of conservative think tanks—the Heartland Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and FreedomWorks—are all famous for promoting climate-change denial and have mobilized to support Pruitt.

  • In their words: “This is a great day for the environment, the American people, and the economy—which will soon no longer be crippled by totally insane regulations, including the idea that humans exhale a pollutant with their every breath,” said Heartland’s science director Jay Lehr back in December. “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!” a researcher at Heartland exclaimed December 7. "The mainstream media's misrepresentation of Scott Pruitt as an unsophisticated crony of the powerful energy lobby couldn't be farther from the truth," FreedomWorks wrote.
  • What it means: Heartland Institute promotes pseudoscientific study while lambasting the global consensus on climate science as some hoax. The think tank’s barely contained glee represents the anticipation for the changes that other climate denier groups, Competitive Enterprise Institute for example, expect under Pruitt’s EPA. “Green pressure groups have come to think of EPA as their hereditary fiefdom,” the Competitive Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Marlo Lewis said. “That could end if someone like Scott Pruitt becomes the administrator.” While FreedomWorks isn't focused only on climate denial, it shares similar funders with many fossil fuel-front groups including Donors Trust and the American Petroleum Institute.

Given this list of prominent supporters, environmental advocates fear that the fossil fuel industry has already come to dominate Pruitt and Trump's environmental policy. 

"From denying settled climate science to leading the opposition of EPA’s Clean Power Plan, Pruitt has sent a loud and clear message to Big Oil and its well-funded mouthpieces that he’s their guy,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who is one of the senators demanding Pruitt's disclosure. “To put a climate denier at the helm of an agency working to keep our environment safe is as dangerous as it gets.”