Scott Pruitt, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has made some questionable claims related to global warming, fracking and the Clean Power Plan.
A self-described “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda,” Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general since 2011, has repeatedly sued the agency and other government entities over environmental rules and regulations, at times in direct cooperation with fossil fuel companies.
Pruitt’s questionable claims include:
- He falsely said in May that scientists “disagree about the degree” and “connection” of global warming “to the actions of mankind.” As we have written time and time again, the vast majority of climate scientists believe global warming is real and human-caused.
- He also said the Clean Power Plan will “significantly” increase electricity prices. Whether the price change is “significant” is a matter of opinion, but the Energy Information Administration estimates that prices under the plan would range from a 7 percent decrease to a 7 percent increase between 2025 and 2040, depending on the region.
- He implied in April 2014 that’s there’s no evidence to support a link between fracking and water contamination. There is some evidence to support a link in certain instances, but not enough to definitively conclude that contamination is widespread, as we wrote in early December.
The Senate will first have to confirm the president-elect’s nomination before Pruitt is officially appointed the administrator of the EPA.
While Democrats won’t hold the majority in the Senate next year, many have vowed to fight Pruitt’s confirmation, Politico reported on Dec. 8. The website wrote, for example, that Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley said “it’s ‘hard to tell’ if Democrats can rally enough Republicans to block the nomination, but vowed to ‘thoroughly vet’ Pruitt during confirmation hearings.”
Politico added that “Pruitt’s confirmation would mark a seismic shift for EPA” due to the fact that all EPA administrators since the 1980s have sided with the large body of scientific evidence that supports human-caused global warming.
Climate Change Skeptic
In a May National Review op-ed, Pruitt questioned the scientific consensus concerning global warming.
Pruitt, May 17: Healthy debate is the lifeblood of American democracy, and global warming has inspired one of the major policy debates of our time. That debate is far from settled. Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.
As we have written over and over and over again, it’s wrong to claim that the “debate is far from settled” — the vast majority of scientists agree that global warming is occurring and that at least half of it is due to human activity.
First, multiple surveys involving thousands of climate scientists have found that about 97 percent of them believe global warming is real and human activity is the primary cause, as we wrote last year.
Second, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its fifth assessment report published in 2013 that it’s “extremely likely” that more than half of the global temperature rise since 1950 is due to human activities, as we also wrote last year.
The Clean Power Plan and Other Lawsuits
Similar to the president-elect himself, Pruitt has stated an interest in keeping the country’s air clean, but primarily through state regulation. But when environmental issues cross state lines, they can “sometimes require federal intervention” from the EPA, Pruitt said in May.
Pruitt’s suits against the EPA have had mixed results, however.
In his first year as attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA for federal overreach in its Cross-State Pollution Rule, which addresses air pollution from coal power plants that crosses state lines via wind currents. Effectively, the rule aims to prevent downwind states from being held responsible for pollution produced upwind.
In 2014, Pruitt lost the case when the Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling that prevented the rule from taking effect.
Early in his tenure as attorney general, Pruitt also sued the EPA over its Regional Haze Rule, which requires states to work with federal agencies to develop plans to reduce haze that limits views in national parks and wilderness areas. The EPA rejected Oklahoma’s plan in 2011 and instead sought to implement its own stricter standards, which prompted Pruitt’s suit.
Haze is the product of sunlight interacting with pollution particles in the air, explains the EPA. The pollutants that make up haze have also been linked to human health and environmental issues such as respiratory illnesses and acid rain. “Most of this haze is not natural. It is air pollution, carried by the wind often many hundreds of miles from where it originated,” the agency says.
After a lower court concluded in July 2013 that the EPA “lawfully exercised” its authority in replacing the state’s plan with its own, Pruitt asked the Supreme Court to review the case. In May 2014, the Supreme Court rejected Pruitt’s request.
The EPA finalized the plan in August 2015. The plan aims to reduce carbon pollution from the power sector to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, says the EPA. Unlike the Regional Haze Rule, the Clean Power Plan aims to regulate coal power plant pollution specifically to combat climate change, says the EPA.
However, on Feb. 9, 2016, the Supreme Court placed a hold on the plan based on state opposition.
In the May National Review op-ed, Pruitt said the plan would “significantly” increase electricity prices for Americans. This is a matter of opinion, but according to the Energy Information Administration, changes in electricity prices with the plan would vary depending on the region, with one region seeing an estimated price decrease. Price changes would vary because some regions would have to make bigger changes than others and may take different routes to compliance, the EIA explains.
For example, in Texas, one of the states that is suing the EPA over the plan, the EIA estimates electricity prices would be 7 percent lower in 2025 with the plan compared to without it. While the state would see a 4 percent increase in prices in 2030, electricity prices would be the same in 2040 regardless of whether or not the plan is implemented.
Texas would see a price reduction in 2025 because the state “adds a large amount of wind capacity in the early years of the projection period to take advantage of available federal tax credits,” the EIA says.
In the region where Oklahoma lies — the Southern Plains — the EIA projects electricity prices would be the same in 2025 with or without the plan. After 2025, electricity prices would be, at most, 4 percent higher with the plan than without it.
The Northeast, a region where no state has sued the EPA over the plan, would see the largest price hikes for the nation overall with a 7 percent increase in 2030 with the plan, compared to without it. (New Jersey has sued the EPA over the plan, but the state doesn’t fall under EIA’s delineation of the Northeast in its electricity estimates.)
The EIA projects the Northeast would see the largest price hikes because the region relies heavily on natural gas and because it has a “competitive pricing market.”
Electricity prices for the U.S. as a whole would be at minimum 1 percent higher in 2025 and at maximum 5 percent higher in 2030 with the plan compared to without it, the EIA says.
Most recently in August, Pruitt sued the EPA over methane regulations on oil and natural gas production. “Pound for pound, the comparative impact of [methane] on climate change is more than 25 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period,” says the EPA. The suit has yet to be settled.
Pruitt has worked directly with energy companies in opposing the EPA’s regulations.
In December 2014, the New York Times reported that Pruitt had sent letters to the EPA arguing that it overestimated air pollution, including methane, produced by new natural gas wells in Oklahoma — and the Times found that the letter was written nearly word-for-word by lawyers for Devon Energy, one of Oklahoma’s largest oil and gas companies. Oklahoma is one of the top oil- and gas-producing states in the country.
Pruitt’s office “rejected any suggestion that the attorney general has been wrong to send to Washington comment letters written by industry lobbyists, or to take up their side in litigation,” the Times also reported. “It is the content of the request not the source of the request that is relevant,” his office told the newspaper.
Muddied Fracking-Water Link
Also similar to the president-elect, Pruitt has said he’s interested in keeping the country’s water clean, but again through state, not federal, regulations. However, Pruitt has made questionable claims about the potential link between hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and water contamination.
Fracking is a technique used to retrieve natural gas and oil from rock below the earth’s surface. The process involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into wells at high pressure, releasing oil and gas that would otherwise be difficult to recover.
In February 2014, Dan Engelberg, the then-director of water issues at the EPA’s Office of Program Evaluation, said his office would begin “preliminary research on the EPA’s and states’ ability to manage potential threats to water resources from hydraulic fracturing.” In response, Pruitt sent a letter in April 2014 to Engelberg, saying he was concerned that the project was “politically motivated.”
Pruitt, April 2014: I am concerned that this project is politically motivated and ignores the EPA’s three previous failed attempts to link hydraulic fracturing to water contamination. In addition, the US Department of Energy has investigated hydraulic fracturing’s potential harm to water supplies and found no evidence linking the drilling technique to groundwater contamination.
We reached out to Pruitt’s office to ask which investigations by the EPA and the DOE Pruitt was referring to then, but we have yet to hear back.
Regardless, scientists didn’t have enough data to reach a definitive conclusion about the link (or lack thereof) between fracking and water contamination across the country then — and they still don’t now. More research must be done to confirm or refute whether water contamination involving fracking is widespread.
As we explained in early December, much of the debate surrounding whether fracking has led to groundwater contamination stems, in part, from a lack of water quality data predating fracking and oil and gas production in general.
In a June 2015 draft report, the EPA reported specific cases of water contamination related to fracking, but it said that it “did not find evidence” that fracking has “led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources in the United States.”
But the EPA’s own advisory board told the EPA in August that it didn’t “quantitatively” support its conclusion or define the terms “systemic” and “widespread,” among other issues. In order to keep its conclusion intact in the final draft, the agency should address these issues, the advisory board said.
The EPA published the final report on Dec. 13. During a press conference on the same day, Thomas Burke, EPA science adviser and deputy assistant administrator, said that, after taking into consideration comments on the draft report, EPA scientists decided to retract the “widespread, systemic” conclusion.
He summarized the final report’s findings accordingly: “There is scientific evidence that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances,” he said. These circumstances include spills of fracking fluids, fracking in defective wells and inadequate disposal of fracking fluids, all of which have occurred.
Burke explained further that EPA scientists retracted the conclusion about “widespread, systemic” impacts because “[s]ignificant data gaps and uncertainties limited our ability to estimate the national frequency of impacts.” The data needed to make this conclusion hasn’t been collected, isn’t publicly available or is very difficult to aggregate, he added.
Thus, contrary to Pruitt’s implication, there’s some evidence linking fracking and water contamination in select cases, but there’s not enough evidence to conclude whether or not this phenomena is widespread.
Editor’s Note: SciCheck is made possible by a grant from the Stanton Foundation.
Correction, Dec. 15: We originally said Dan Engelberg was the director of the EPA’s Office of Inspector General. He was the director of water issues at the EPA’s Office of Program Evaluation. We have corrected the article accordingly.