WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nearly 800 former Environmental Protection Agency officials urged the U.S. Senate to reject President Donald Trump's nominee to run the agency as the chamber moved closer on Thursday to approving his pick, Scott Pruitt, the attorney general of oil-producing Oklahoma.
The 773 former officials signed a letter organized by the nonprofit group Environmental Integrity Project that said Pruitt's record and public statements suggest he does not agree with underlying principles of environmental laws.
As attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA more than a dozen times on behalf of Oklahoma and he has cast doubts on the science of climate change.
"Mr. Pruitt has shown no interest in enforcing those laws, a critically important function for EPA," the letter said.
A spokesman for Pruitt did not immediate respond to a request for comment about the letter.
Pruitt's efforts to challenge the EPA's authority reflected "a fundamental lack of understanding and respect for the vital role that EPA plays in ensuring clean air and water for every American no matter where they live or their color or creed," said Joseph Santarella, an EPA enforcement lawyer under former Republican and Democratic administrations, who signed the letter.
Republican Senator Sue Collins came out against Pruitt on Wednesday saying his actions left her with doubts about whether his vision for the agency was consistent with its mission to protect human health and the environment.
Unless more Republicans join Collins, Pruitt's nomination is likely to succeed.
Senator John Barrasso, a Republican of coal producing Wyoming and head of the Senate energy committee, said Pruitt had "led the charge to rein in big government and Washington overreach."
The Senate advanced Pruitt's nomination on Thursday by a vote of 54 to 46, clearing the way for 30 hours of debate before a final vote, expected on Friday.
The path to stopping Pruitt became even steeper on Thursday after Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, said she would vote for him, even though she had "concerns" about his commitment to a wide energy strategy that includes renewable power like solar and wind and his commitment to reduce emissions from energy operations.
Reporting by Timothy Gardnerl; Editing by Andrew Hay