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Scott Pruitt Confirmed To Lead Environmental Protection Agency

Scott Pruitt has been confirmed by the Senate to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
J. Scott Applewhite
Scott Pruitt has been confirmed by the Senate to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has been confirmed as the next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency Pruitt has long criticized.

The Senate approved Pruitt on a 52-46 vote Friday afternoon, with two Democrats — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota — voting for his nomination. Republican Susan Collins of Maine voted no.

The vote came after a failed Democratic attempt to delay the confirmation proceedings until after a new batch of documents from Pruitt's state office are made public under court order. Those emails will be released beginning next week.

Pruitt has come under fire for coordinating closely with energy companies in his attempts to scale back and block federal environmental regulations. The New York Times reported that at times, Pruitt had simply copied and pasted suggested language from an energy company onto state letterhead, and then sent it to the EPA.

Pruitt will almost certainly take the EPA in a drastically new direction.

The agency aggressively drafted and enforced new environmental rules during the Obama administration, tightening federal standards for vehicle emissions, water quality and pollution at power plants. Pruitt is expected to slow or reverse much of that, scaling back regulations and deferring to states on environmental enforcement. That's a process President Trump and Congress have already begun.

As Oklahoma's attorney general, Pruitt led legal challenge after legal challenge against EPA regulations, even describing himself in his official biography as "a leading advocate against the EPA's activist agenda."

Pruitt argued during his confirmation hearing that he wasn't against environmental quality standards — he just thinks that they are better enforced on the state level. "The states are not mere vessels of federal will," Pruitt testified. "They don't exist simply to carry out federal dictates from Washington, D.C. There are substantive requirements, obligations, authority, jurisdiction granted to the states under our environmental statutes. That needs to be respected."

That's a view shared by many Republicans. But former Bush administration EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman told NPR she is worried Pruitt's skepticism goes too far for him to be an effective head of the agency. "He seems to have a level of distrust that is unusual coming into an agency, because it doesn't necessarily bode well for good relations with the career staff that are there, with whom you have to work and you need to get things done," she said.

Whitman also questioned Pruitt's belief in climate change. While Pruitt did tell senators during his confirmation hearing that "science tells us that the climate is changing and human activity in some manner impacts that change," he said "the extent of that [human] impact is subject to continuing debate and dialogue."

Regardless of Pruitt's personal beliefs on climate change, he is expected to dismantle the EPA's main rule aimed at lowering the United States' carbon footprint: the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan.

The rule would lower carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by about 30 percent over the coming decades and is the linchpin of the United States' plan to meet its obligations under the Paris climate agreement.

The Clean Power Plan is currently held up in federal court. President Trump campaigned on reversing it, and Pruitt was among the state attorneys general who sued to block the regulation from ever taking effect.

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Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.