January 18, 2017 / 12:02 PM / 7 months ago

U.S. Senate panel to question Trump's EPA pick over energy ties

WASHINGTON, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, President-elect Donald Trump's choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, will face tough questions from lawmakers on Wednesday about his ties to the energy industry, in what is expected to be another highly contentious confirmation hearing for Trump's Cabinet-in-waiting.

Pruitt, 48, is a climate change skeptic who sued the agency he intends to run more than a dozen times as Oklahoma's top prosecutor, a strong signal he will aggressively carry out Trump's vows to slash EPA regulation to the core to encourage more U.S. oil and gas drilling and coal mining.

His nomination to head the agency has set off a public relations and lobbying battle. His opponents include Senate Democrats and green groups worried about climate change, wildlife and pollution. But he has strong support from conservatives and industry groups that view the EPA as over-funded and bad for American jobs.

In prepared remarks seen by Reuters before the hearing, Pruitt said he would seek to ensure environmental rules do not come at the expense of development. "Environmental regulations should not occur in an economic vacuum. We can simultaneously pursue the mutual goals of environmental protection and economic growth," he said in the remarks.

Trump has promised to refocus the EPA on its core values of protecting air and water quality, while scrapping many of President Barack Obama's initiatives to combat global climate change by targeting carbon dioxide emissions.

INDUSTRY TIES

For weeks, environmental groups have been campaigning to urge lawmakers to block Pruitt's nomination, arguing that he is doing the bidding of energy companies and industry groups that have contributed to his past election campaigns.

The Environmental Defense Fund's Action Fund, which says it has never opposed a nominated EPA chief, set up a website with links to research it says shows a correlation between his campaign contributions and his litigation.

Green activist billionaire Tom Steyer's NextGen Climate advocacy group has also launched anti-Pruitt television ads in a dozen states, and the Natural Resources Defense Council said on Tuesday that Pruitt "is the worst nominee ever tapped to lead the U.S Environmental Protection Agency."

Earlier this month, six Democratic senators on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that will conduct Wednesday's hearing had asked Pruitt to disclose his industry ties and detail his involvement with the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a group they said supports the agenda of the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers. Pruitt was chairman of the group but resigned in November.

Pruitt has not responded to the request, and Republicans on the committee who support him have criticized the Democrats' move saying it "extends beyond the usual questioning of an EPA nominee's record."

Several conservative groups and political action committees have countered. Small government-focused PAC Freedom Works launched a push this month to urge lawmakers to support Pruitt's nomination because he will work to undo the agency's rules targeting carbon and methane pollution from power plants, autos and oil and gas infrastructure.

America Rising Squared, a registered nonprofit backing conservative issues, also launched an online petition campaign to support Pruitt. And the National Association of Manufacturers launched three television ads calling on viewers to contact their senators in support of his confirmation.

Pruitt has said the debate over what is causing climate change is not yet settled, and is likely to face questions from lawmakers about the science behind global warming. Two government agencies are expected to announce that 2016 was the hottest year on record.

Pruitt's hearing is one of a series of sessions to vet Trump's senior appointees since last week. Trump's pick for Secretary of State, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, was questioned by lawmakers last week. His choice for Energy Secretary, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, is scheduled to testify on Thursday. (Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and David Gregorio)

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