How far will Scott Pruitt take EPA regulatory reform?

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Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt departs after a meeting with U.S. President elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower New York, U.S., November 28, 2016.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson - RTSTQYT

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: more on today’s nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the EPA.

We start with a little background on the man.

A leading critic of the EPA now in line to take its helm. As Oklahoma state attorney general since 2011, Scott Pruitt has called for rolling back the agency’s efforts on climate change and other rule-making. In a statement today, he said: “The American people are tired of seeing billions of dollars drained from our economy due to unnecessary EPA regulations.”

Not surprisingly, his selection drew harsh words from a number of Democrats.

REP. JARED HUFFMAN (D-Calif.): Some of these folks only qualifications for the job that they have been appointed for is that they have attempted to dismantle and undermine and destroy the very agencies that they are now hoping to run.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Pruitt is in sync with President-elect Trump on a range of issues, including his skepticism about man-made global warming.

Writing in The National Review this year, he said: “That debate is far from settled. Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming.”

In fact, the vast majority of scientists agree that human activity contributes to global warming, all of which underscores questions about whether a Trump administration will refuse to abide by the Paris accords on greenhouse gas emissions.

Pruitt has also vigorously fought the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which set unprecedented caps on carbon pollution by power plants. And he’s repeatedly sued the agency on the Clean Power Plan, as well as limits on methane emissions and other regulations.

Transition spokesman Sean Spicer defended Pruitt’s approach on the “NewsHour” last night.

SEAN SPICER, Chief Strategist, Republican National Committee: It is a very big difference to care about whether or not we’re toting to the agenda of the far extreme left that is a job-killing, regulation-type agenda that wants to step out of — put businesses out of business, or people who actually care about the environment and whose goal is clean air, clean water, making sure that we preserve our natural resources.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One issue in the confirmation hearings may be oil and gas industry contributions to Pruitt’s campaigns. A New York Times investigation in 2014 found that Pruitt’s office sent letters to the EPA and President Obama that were largely written by energy industry lobbyists.

Pruitt, in turn, defended his right to ally with what he called private sector players that shared his views.

We get two reactions to the nomination now with Scott Segal. He advises clients on energy, the environment and natural resources at Bracewell, a law and government relations firm serving the oil and gas industry. And Rhea Suh, she is president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.

And we welcome both of you to the “NewsHour.”

Scott Segal, is Mr. Pruitt a good choice?

SCOTT SEGAL, Bracewell: Well, you know, he’s done a wonderful job as attorney general of Oklahoma. It’s a complicated job that he’s had to perform. It’s a resource-rich state. It has a lot of its own environmental statutes, as well as a good track record on enforcement of federal statutes.

He has had to balance not just his desire to limit federal authority under a policy of federalism, but he also balances that with a much larger shop that defends consumer protection in the state of Oklahoma, and even argues against the major power companies, making sure that rate structures are appropriate.

So he has a very balanced record as far as both consumer protection and working on regulations is concerned. I have seen him in action. He’s a smart guy. He’s articulate. And I think he will do a very good job at EPA.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rhea Suh, you told us you were alarmed when you heard he was chosen.

RHEA SUH, President, Natural Resources Defense Council: It’s pretty shocking to have somebody nominated to lead the Environmental Protection Agency — and, literally, the name the Environmental Protection Agency pretty much defines what this government entity is responsible for.

It’s responsible for the oversight and the enforcement of our collective environment and protections around our collective environment for all of us.

To have somebody chosen that not only doesn’t believe in the ability of the agency to enforce those things, as is evidenced by the multiple lawsuits that he has issued against the EPA, but doesn’t believe basically in the sanctity of that government agency and protecting its public trust responsibilities for all Americans, is quite disturbing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Scott Segal, does Mr. Pruitt believe in the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency, to protect the environment?

SCOTT SEGAL: He absolutely does.

In fact, he’s the senior law enforcement officer for the state of Oklahoma’s environmental protection statutes, and so he absolutely does believe it. What he does believe, in addition to that, is a firm commitment to the rule of law.

And, frankly, some of the very regulations that have been referenced so far, whether it’s the Clean Power Plan for power plants or whether it’s the Definition of Waters of the United States, have been such a departure from past precedent and what the statutes actually say at EPA that in both cases those rules have been stayed.

And Attorney General Pruitt has been part of those stays. That tells me that he will keep a watchful eye on whether EPA does activities that are consistent with their statutes. And if that is the case, then we all win in the long run, because we want to have executive agencies that actually abide by the law. Their regulations will stay many place longer and they will be more predictable and they will end up protecting the American people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Rhea Suh, if that’s the kind of thing he’s going to do, what worries you?

RHEA SUH: Well, unfortunately, there’s a whole host of things that worry us.

Number one, again, this agency is responsible for protecting public health, so these are decisions that are made every day, both in terms of policy, as well as in terms of enforcement, that affect the daily lives of people.

So, whether it’s polluting industries that are not held to account, or whether it’s climate change, I think the biggest of all policy opportunities that this administration will have, instead of taking the mantle and really seeing the authority and the responsibility associated with the job, we see this individual walking in and turning it 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, if he’s looking — we just heard Mr. Segal refer to power plants and refer to water. If there is a scaling back of regulations in these areas, why isn’t it still possible to at least carry out some or a large part of what you see as the mission of the EPA? Can there be a middle ground, is what I’m asking.

RHEA SUH: Well, thank goodness that the middle ground, I believe, is the law and the statutes of the land.

There’s a variety of different laws that are in place designed to protect clean air, clean water. The thing that is quite worrisome about this nominee in particular is that he has gone after those underlying statutes and questioned the very legitimacy of us as a community, as a nation to have the right to things like clear air and clean water.

So, make no mistake about it. In terms of radicalism, this is something that we have never quite seen before in the Environmental Protection Agency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it sounds — Scott Segal, Ms. Suh and others in the environmental community are worried that Mr. Pruitt is going to do is basically undo the bulk of what — in other words, the heart and soul of these regulations and the difference that they make.

SCOTT SEGAL: Right.

I just don’t think there’s any evidence of that. I think they’re going to proceed basically on sort of two levels. The first is, those regulations which have gone further than the underlying statutes would allow, yes, those regulations are probably going to be pared back, to the extent that Attorney General Pruitt can do so consistent with law and public policy concerns. So that’s going to happen.

Broader than that, though, EPA must go through regulatory reform. It simply must. It has for a long time overstated the benefits of its rules with the knowing acquiescence of the major environmental organizations in this country, and it has done so in a way that has misspent resources that could better protect the American public if they were spent more wisely.

And I believe a degree of regulatory reform is necessary for that agency. That is exactly what was said on the campaign trail. Regulatory reform is a critical element. You won’t get it with using the same old players.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that, Rhea Suh?

RHEA SUH: So, I think this language of regulatory reform, of overstepping the boundaries, when it comes down to it, these are the basic values that uphold our standard of living, our quality of living, the right to drink clean water and to breathe clean air.

It’s not regulatory muckety-muck. These are basic values that, again, most Americans believe is their right. And we believe the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority and the responsibility to uphold that right for all Americans.

So the fact, again, that we’re seeing a nominee come into this position that not only doesn’t believe in that authority, let alone will take the responsibility of upholding that authority, I think many, many people are more than disturbed. It’s actually quite a frightening prospect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, so, much of this is going to be debated and discussed during his confirmation hearings. And we look forward to that.

Rhea Suh, Scott Segal, we thank you both.

RHEA SUH: Thank you.

SCOTT SEGAL: Thank you.

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