ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Donald Trump's nominee for administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency was on Capitol Hill today. At the same time, government climate scientists announced that 2016 was the planet's hottest year on record. It is the third year in a row that record has been set.
Climate change was one of the many issues Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt was asked about today. NPR's Nathan Rott has been watching the proceedings, and he joins us now. Hi.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey, Robert.
SIEGEL: Let's start with that question about climate change. Donald Trump has said he believes climate change is a hoax. His nominee for secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, broke with that yesterday, saying he believes it's real. Where does Pruitt stand?
ROTT: Pruitt took the same line as Zinke. He said that he believes climate change is real, that science tells us that the climate is changing and that human activity is having an impact. But he was skeptical about just how big that impact was. He wouldn't say that human activity is the driving force behind climate change, which is what many in the scientific community believe. Instead, he said that the degree and extent of human impact and what should be done about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue.
Now, this is similar to what he said before when he's accused Democrats and the Obama administration of silencing those debates. And it's important because as head of the EPA, Pruitt would be in charge of enforcing emission standards for pollutants like carbon and greenhouse gases.
SIEGEL: Now, Mr. Pruitt has had an antagonistic relationship with the Obama administration while he was attorney general in Oklahoma. He sued the EPA, the very agency he's been nominated to run, more than a dozen times. Was that brought up today?
ROTT: At length (laughter). A number of Democrats took Pruitt to task for not only that but his history of taking campaign contributions from oil and gas industries, polluters and then for suing the EPA, saying that as attorney general he represented industry and polluters instead of the public in Oklahoma. Pruitt obviously denied that charge and said he worked on behalf of his constituents and the state of Oklahoma by challenging what he saw as overreaching federal programs.
As attorney general, he sued the EPA on issues ranging from smog and mercury pollution to carbon emissions and water quality. And it's important to note that a number of those lawsuits are ongoing. That was something that was brought up by Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts.
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ED MARKEY: As EPA administrator, you would be in a position to serve as plaintiff, defendant, judge and jury on these ongoing eight lawsuits, and that would be wrong.
ROTT: Now, Markey tried getting Pruitt to say that he would recuse himself from those lawsuits if they came up while he was the administrator, but Pruitt said he'd follow the recommendations of his ethics committee.
SIEGEL: Scott Pruitt's critics say he is against the very mission of the EPA, that he'd probably prefer there be no federal EPA. What does he see as the role of the EPA?
ROTT: Well, so Scott Pruitt does not want to abolish the EPA. He says he believes that it has an important role in protecting the environment and the public's health, especially in issues across state lines. But it's his belief that the EPA has hurt states' economies and industry by overstepping its bounds. Let's hear a little about that now.
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SCOTT PRUITT: The states are not mere vessels of federal will. They don't exist simply to carry out federal dictates from Washington D.C. There are substantive requirements, obligations, authority, jurisdiction granted to the states under our environmental statutes. That needs to be respected.
ROTT: And this was a big talking point for Republican senators during the hearing, too - the idea of states' rights and federalism. Many talked about the damaged relationship between states and the EPA under the Obama administration, and Pruitt has promised to improve those relationships if he becomes the administrator.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Nathan Rott. Nate, thanks.
ROTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.