President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency outlined a vision for scaling back the office's reach, while pledging to support clean air and water and hold polluters responsible for violations when necessary.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Wednesday that environmental protection can be accomplished in collaboration with states and Congress -- without undermining the economy.
"We must reject as a nation the false paradigm that if you're pro-energy, you're anti-environment, and if you're pro-environment, you're anti-energy," Pruitt said in his confirmation hearing. "In this nation, we can grow our economy, harvest the resources God has blessed us with, while also being good stewards of the air, land and water."
For roughly seven years as Oklahoma's attorney general, Pruitt has been on the other end of the EPA's authority, chafing at -- and challenging -- agency regulations governing water, limiting pollution from power plants and slashing greenhouse gas emissions. Pruitt has become one of Trump's most controversial cabinet picks because he has dedicated much of his career to battling the very agency he has been tapped to lead.
If confirmed, Pruitt will be able to rewrite or rescind scores of environmental regulations officially -- or simply ease off on their enforcement. Supporters, including panel chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming, say he would rein in overzealous Obama-era rules and restore much-needed balance to environmental regulation, making good on Trump's promise to focus the EPA on its core mission of protecting the air and water.
Opponents take a starkly different view. Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, has termed Pruitt's nomination "a full-fledged environmental emergency." Critics are using targeted advertising, a barrage of phone calls to Senate offices and even a singing sit-in to try and derail the nomination.
"Pruitt is of special focus because of the complete mismatch between the nominee and the agency he would head," said David Goldston, government affairs director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Environmental activists wearing hard hats and air masks lined the halls outside the hearing room Wednesday, with protesters occasionally shouting over proceedings: "Pruitt accepts money from oil companies!" "He's a conflict of interest!" "Let the public in!"
Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the environment committee, outlined a clear test for Pruitt: Does he share a belief that humans have a "moral obligation" to serve as stewards of the planet?
"We need to be convinced that you embrace it as well, not just with your words, but with your deeds," Carper told Pruitt. "Much of your record suggests otherwise."
Early on, Pruitt sought to dispel questions about his view of climate change -- though his answer may have only provoked more queries about the degree to which he views the phenomenon as a threat.
Pruitt said he disagreed with Trump's earlier claims that global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese to harm the economic competitiveness of the United States.
"I do not believe climate change is a hoax," Pruitt said.
"Science tells us the climate is changing and human activity in some manner impacts that change," Pruitt told the panel. "The ability to measure the precision, degree and extent of the impact and what to do about that are subject to continued debate and dialogue."
Last year was the hottest on the record, the third consecutive record year, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration figures released on Wednesday. Scientists say they aren't debating what's causing the increase. "It is warming because we are not reducing the amounts of greenhouse gases by the amounts we need to," said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
Pruitt has gone to court to fight more than a dozen EPA actions, including President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan, a regional haze regulation designed to protect the air around national parks and the agency's conclusion that climate change endangers public health and welfare. That endangerment finding undergirds Obama administration regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
"All of these suits were brought to protect the state and local interests by overzealous and activist agencies" that "advanced a radical environmental agenda," said Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma.
Inhofe and his Republican colleague in the Senate, James Lankford, portrayed Pruitt as a fighter, willing to take on oil companies as well as overreaching regulations. Lankford recalled a lawsuit Pruitt filed against BP accusing the oil company of "double-dipping" by getting both insurance companies and taxpayers to pay for the costs of cleaning up leaks from underground storage tanks.
Senate Democrats are scrutinizing Pruitt's ties to the oil and gas industry, including donations from the sector to his campaigns and associated political action committees. In 2014, the New York Times reported that after Devon Energy donated to Pruitt, he sent a letter drafted by the oil and gas producer to the EPA, with only limited changes.
Pruitt was also criticized for his decision to close an environmental protection division in his Oklahoma office while establishing a new "federalism unit" with the mission of fighting Washington overreach.
Democrats also plan to press Pruitt to explain how he would approach issues on which he has challenged the EPA's authority in the past. It's not unprecedented for an EPA administrator to have tangled with the same agency prior to leading it. For instance, Gina McCarthy, the current administrator, previously sued the EPA as a Massachusetts state official. However, Pruitt has been far more active, targeting a broader array of EPA rules.
Associated Press contributed to this report.