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Scrutinizing Sen. Carper's Questions for EPA Nominee Pruitt

Yesterday, The Hill’s Timothy Cama reported that Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is unwilling to hold a confirmation hearing on President-elect Trump’s choice for Environmental Protection Agency administrator until the nominee, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, answers a seven-page questionnaire. Below, I’ve answered 13 representative questions, in no particular order. A few of Carper’s questions don’t make a lick of sense (see questions 2, 3, 10). Others were based on factual inaccuracies or otherwise demonstrate the Senator’s ignorance of how the EPA works (see questions 8, 12, and 13). Some questions served to demonstrate the excesses of the EPA during the Obama era (see questions 9 and 11). Finally, at least one of his questions serves no purpose other than to gum up the nomination process (see question 7).

Question #1: Do you agree with this statement from NASA: “97% or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.”? If not, please explain why you do not agree.

Response #1: According to Professor Richard Tol, who has been involved with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since 1994, the “97% consensus” claim is a “bogus” number that is based on a statistical manipulation. But assuming for the sake of argument that it’s true, the statement is of minimal utility for policymaking at the EPA. For starters, it tells us nothing about how a changing climate influences human well-being, which must be the primary metric from a policymaking standpoint. In fact, there is great uncertainty regarding the magnitude and effect of projected climate change. Finally, the statement tells us nothing about costs and feasibility of greenhouse gas controls, which must be considered under the Clean Air Act. As such, the nominee’s agreement or disagreement with the statement is immaterial.

Question #2: What is your definition of sound science?

Response #2: Carper is asking Pruitt to define the modifier “sound,” which is inherently subjective. Personally, I believe that there must be at least a 98% consensus before science is “sound”; a 97% consensus is insufficient. But seriously, this question is impossibly imprecise. It’s like asking someone to define the color blue.

Question #3: Prior to your nomination, how have you acquired scientific information relevant to the missions of the EPA? And since your nomination?

Response #3: Again, this is a strangely imprecise question. Does it count when Pruitt watches Shark Week with his kids? I assume Pruitt processes “scientific information” constantly, in addition to “legal information” and “family information” and “sports information.”

Question #4: Please list all undergraduate and postgraduate science courses that you have taken. Please describe any other science education that you have completed over the years beyond high school.

Response #4: Is this some sort of litmus test? If so, does this mean that Janet McCabe, the head of EPA’s Office of Air & Radiation—which is the most powerful public health regulatory body at EPA—is unfit for the job? According to her bio, she went to Harvard Law School and then worked as an Assistant Attorney General in Massachusetts, which is a very similar background to Pruitt. In a similar vein, does Al Gore’s science-free tertiary education render him unfit to head the EPA?

Question #5: What degree of scientific certainty should the EPA have about a potential health or environmental threat before acting to protect people from that threat?

Response #5: Of course, the answer depends on the statutory provision at question. The EPA only exists to the extent it has been created by Congress through organic laws that empower the agency with its authorities. So the necessary degree of scientific certainty, and whether or not costs factor into policymaking decisions, are determined by the law. I suspect it is Pruitt’s intention as EPA head to follow the law, unlike the current administration, which has expansively interpreted the law so as to grow the agency’s authority at the expense of Congress and the states.

Question #6: Please provide a list of all financial contributors to your attorney general and state senate campaigns, including their total donations and affiliations.

Response #6: I presume the silly logic behind this question is that Pruitt has been bought. Does this mean that Obama was bought by “Big Oil” when he took $900,000 from them in 2008? Better yet, let me see a list of all financial contributors to your campaigns, Senator Carper.

Question #7: Please provide a list of all the cases, briefs and other legal actions that your office has filed while you have served as attorney general.

Response #7: This looks suspiciously like a tactic to bog down the nomination process. After all, why would Carper want the non-environmental “cases, briefs, and other legal actions” filed by the Oklahoma Attorney General? After all, we’re talking about the nominee for the Environmental Protection Agency, and Sen. Carper is the ranking member of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee. Why would Sen. Carper want documents relating to larceny or murder? This would likely entail hundreds of thousands of pages, none of which have anything to do with environmental policy. Does that make sense?

Question #8: Every year during your tenure as Oklahoma Attorney General, the American Lung Association gave Oklahoma counties a failing grade for not meeting ozone air pollution health standards. In fact, your home town of Tulsa is ranked 18th out of 228 metropolitan areas for high alert ozone days. Are you concerned about the impacts of soot and smog pollution on Oklahoma citizens? What efforts have you undertaken as Oklahoma Attorney General to protect Oklahomans from soot and smog pollution?

Response #8: EPA is required to set ambient air quality standards for smog and soot at a level that is “requisite to protect public health” with an “adequate margin of safety.” That is, national standards have to be beyond what is necessary to protect public health. According to the EPA, no counties in Oklahoma fail to attain these stringent health standards. So I don’t have any idea what the American Lung Association is talking about. I should note that the accuracy of ALA’s annual air quality grades was recently challenged by Colorado air quality officials.

Question #9: In your joint brief against the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, it stated “human exposure to methylmercury from coal-fired electric generating units is exceedingly small.” What is the scientific basis for this statement?

Response #9: The scientific basis for this statement is the EPA, according to which it was “necessary and proper” to regulate mercury from power plants in order to protect a putative population of pregnant subsistence fisherwomen who during their pregnancies eat more than 200 pounds of self-caught or family-caught fish from exclusively the top ten percent most polluted bodies of fresh inland water, despite all of the signs that say “DO NOT EAT FISH FROM THIS RIVER IF YOU ARE PREGNANT.” I don’t believe these women exist, and EPA did not provide any examples. Instead, they were modeled to exist. While the rule’s “benefits” are indeed “exceedingly small,” its costs--$10 billion annually—are exorbitant.

Question #10: Who serves as your scientific advisor for climate change related issues during your time as attorney general? Please provide their name, their title and when they served as your science advisor.

Response #10: This is a very silly question. Why would the Oklahoma Attorney General have a climate change science advisor? Oklahoma is litigating one case related to climate change—should it have a discrete science advisory for each case it undertakes? What role would such a climate science advisor play? I fail to see how interpreting the limits of EPA’s statutory authority under the Clean Air Act requires knowledge of climate science.

Question #11: In 2013, you argued that the EPA’s decision to impose a Federal Implementation Plan on Oklahoma to address Regional Haze would cost more than $1 billion over 5 years. It is three years later. Do you still agree with this cost assessment? If not, why not?

Response #11: The $1 billion referred to the cost of four sulfur-dioxide scrubbers at four coal-fired power plants operated by the Oklahoma Gas & Electric. Indeed, the primary justification for EPA’s federal plan was that the agency disagreed with the state’s cost estimate of what the scrubbers would cost. In 2014, the utility proposed a $1.1 billion plan for the 4 scrubber retrofits, but the plan was rejected by state regulators. As a result, the utility re-submitted a different plan to spend $500 million on 2 scrubbers, and to spend about $70 million on converting the other two coal-fired power plants to gas-fired plants. Due to these changes, the current cost of the EPA federal plan is about $570 million. However, the actual costs of the scrubbers aligns with what Oklahoma had estimated—i.e., the basis for EPA’s federal plan was disproved. More importantly, the “benefits” of the rule are literally imperceptible to the human eye. Thus, EPA’s takeover of the Oklahoma Regional Haze program demonstrates much that was wrong with the Obama-era EPA. After the state of Oklahoma spent countless hours and resources putting together a visibility strategy, EPA rejected the state plan and then imposed a federal plan which cost $570 million more in order to achieve a visibility “improvement” that is literally invisible. Afterwards, events demonstrated that Oklahoma had been right all along.

Question #12: As attorney general, what types of environmental justice cases have you pursued? Please provide a list of cases and outcomes.

Response #12: I can’t find any evidence that Obama’s EPA brought a single environmental justice case. Given that environmental justice is a federal concept, and that EPA hasn’t brought any such cases during Obama’s tenure, I don’t understand why the Attorney General of Oklahoma would have done so.

Question #13: Would you explain your recent challenges to EPA’s finding that it is appropriate and necessary to regulate the emissions of carbon dioxide and hazardous air pollutants from power plants?

Response #13: This question gets the Clean Air Act wrong. Along with more than 20 other states in addition to Oklahoma, Pruitt did indeed challenge EPA’s determination that it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate the emissions of hazardous air pollutants from power plants. He did so based on the EPA’s own science, as I explain in Response #9. Almost two years ago, the Supreme Court sided with Pruitt and the other challengers in determining that EPA was required to take costs into account when it rendered this “appropriate and necessary” determination. However, contrary to Sen. Carper’s query, the EPA never issued a finding that it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate greenhouse gases from power plants. Instead, EPA issued a determination at the end of 2009 that tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases from cars and vehicles “endangered” the environment. This was the determination that Pruitt unsuccessfully challenged based, inter alia, on the argument that the structure and design of the Clean Air Act strongly suggests that it was not intended to regulate greenhouse gases.