Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, underscored the importance of federalism in U.S. environmental policy and regulation, and criticized the agency he's being tasked to run, at his confirmation hearing Wednesday.
The Oklahoma attorney general vowed to follow the "rule of law," if confirmed, and promised to "fairly and equitably enforce the rules and not pick winners and losers."
Pruitt, who has sued the EPA more than a dozen times during his tenure, has accused the agency of overreach and favoritism under President Obama – an accusation that was echoed by Republican members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee during the hearing.
"There's a lot of anger, even fear of this agency in many parts of this country," said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. He and other Republicans have called for an overhaul of the EPA.
The fear among environmental groups and Democrats is that an overhaul under Pruitt would favor industry and oil and gas companies over the public.
Pruitt has taken tens of thousands of dollars in donations from oil and gas companies. A New York Times investigation in 2014 found that he sent letters that were drafted by energy lobbyists to federal agencies on Oklahoma's state government stationary.
"A public office is about serving the public," said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., pointing to a poster print-out of one such letter. "You used your office as a direct extension of an oil company rather than a direct extension of the public health of the people of Oklahoma."
Pruitt argued that he was representing his constituents and the state of Oklahoma.
He also seemed to address critics who have called him a climate-change-denier in his opening statement by breaking from the president-elect in saying that climate change is not a hoax, as did Interior Secretary nominee Ryan Zinke.
"Science tells us that the climate is changing and human activity in some manner impacts that change," Pruitt said. "The human ability to measure with precision the extent of that impact is subject to continuing debate and dialogue, as well they should be."
Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont later challenged that assertion.
"Ninety-seven percent of scientists who wrote articles in peer-reviewed journals believe that human activity is the fundamental reason we are seeing climate change," Sanders said. "Do you disagree with that?"
The comments came near the same time that NOAA and NASA scientists announced that 2016 was the hottest year on record, the third consecutive year of record-breaking heat.
Sam Adams, the U.S. director of the World Resources Institute, later said the timing of Pruitt's testimony, after the heat report, was noteworthy. "We cannot afford to have an EPA administrator who fails to grasp the urgency of addressing climate change," he said in a statement.
Pruitt did say that he believes the EPA administrator has "a very important role to perform in regulating CO2," and that there is a legal obligation to do so.
Senate Democrats also pushed Pruitt to recuse himself, if he gets confirmed, from any litigation that he brought forward against the EPA as Oklahoma's attorney general. A number of those cases remain unresolved, most prominently a 27-state lawsuit against the Clean Power Plan, President Obama's signature climate change policy.
"As EPA administrator, you would be in a position to serve as plaintiff, defendant, judge and jury on these ongoing lawsuits and that would be wrong," said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass.
Pruitt refused to say he would recuse himself from those lawsuits and said he would rely on the advice of his agency's ethics lawyers.
The 48-year-old attorney general rose to national prominence suing the federal government and preaching the merits of states' rights. But when questioned by California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris about a federally-approved waiver that allows California to set stricter emissions standards than the federal requirement, Pruitt did not commit to upholding that policy.
He said he would review it and not presume the outcome.