WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump's choice to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told senators Wednesday that climate change is real, breaking with both the president-elect and his own past statements.
Pressed by Democrats during his Senate confirmation hearing, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said he disagreed with Trump's past statements 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," said Pruitt, a Republican.
Though his academic degrees are in political science and law, Pruitt has previously cast doubt on the extensive body of scientific evidence showing that the planet is warming and man-made carbon emissions are to blame. In a 2016 opinion article, Pruitt suggested that the debate over global warming "is far from settled" and claimed "scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind."
Pruitt's comments Wednesday came less than one hour after NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a joint statement affirming that 2016 was officially the hottest year in recorded history. Studies show the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass, while the world's oceans have risen on average nearly 7 inches in the last century.
Despite his apparent shift on climate science, Pruitt defended his past record of opposing any federal regulation of the man-made carbon emissions that are warming the planet.
As Oklahoma's attorney general, Pruitt joined with other Republican state attorneys general in opposing the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, which seeks to limit planet-warming carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. Pruitt also sued over the agency's recent expansion of water bodies regulated under the federal Clean Water Act, which has been opposed by industries that would be forced to clean up polluted wastewater.
On Wednesday, Pruitt said as EPA administrator he would work cooperatively with states and industry to return the federal watchdog to what he described as its proper role.
"Environmental regulations should not occur in an economic vacuum," Pruitt said. "We can simultaneously pursue the mutual goals of environmental protection and economic growth."
Pruitt has a long history of criticizing and suing the agency he is now being tapped to lead. His nomination was fiercely opposed by environmentalists who cite his cozy relationships with oil and gas industry executives who have donated generously his political campaigns. He is expected to win approval by the Republican-led Senate.
As his confirmation hearing got underway early Wednesday, shouting could be heard from people outside in the hall who were not allowed in. The room accommodated about 100 people, with most of the seats taken by congressional staff, reporters and others who were allowed in early. Only a handful of seats remained for the public.
One woman was quickly wrestled out of the room by three police officers as she pulled out a roll of yellow crime scene tape and shouted "We don't want EPA gutted!"
Senate Republicans began by praising what they said was Pruitt's record of enforcing environmental laws "when appropriate." Court records show scant evidence of Pruitt acting to protect the environment in years as a state regulator.
Shortly after Pruitt took office in Oklahoma in 2011, he disbanded the unit responsible for protecting the state's natural resources. Instead, he reassigned his staff to file more than a dozen lawsuits challenging EPA regulations.
Democrats used their time during the hearing to focus on Pruitt's record of siding with polluters in court as he collected campaign contributions from them.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., pressed Pruitt on money he raised from energy companies such as Exxon Mobil and Devon Energy, as well as the corporate "dark money" raised by groups with which he is involved that are not required to disclose their donors.
Whitehouse said a political action group Pruitt leads is "a complete black hole into which at least $1 million goes." Whitehouse said Americans deserve to "know exactly who he's working for" if Pruitt is to lead an agency charged with protecting the health and wellbeing of millions of Americans.
Though Pruitt ran unopposed for a second term in 2014, campaign finance reports show he raised more than $700,000, much of it from people in the energy and utility industries. Among those who gave the maximum contribution of $5,000 to Pruitt's campaign was Continental Resources Chairman and CEO Harold Hamm, an Oklahoma oil tycoon who has been advising the president-elect.
A lawyer for two political action committees tied to Pruitt told AP earlier this month they would be dissolved before any move to Washington.
Pruitt also has faced sharp criticism from environmentalists for failing to take any action to help curb a dramatic spike in earthquake activity that scientists have linked to the underground disposal of oil and gas wastewater.
On Wednesday, Pruitt testified that his past support for legal positions advocated by oil and gas companies was in the best interest of his home state, which is economically dependent on the fossil fuel industry.
Associated Press writer Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.
Follow AP environmental writer Michael Biesecker at Twitter.com/mbieseck