On Wednesday, the Senate’s Environment And Public Works Committee convened for Scott Pruitt’s confirmation hearing to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt and those attending the hearing were greeted by a line of protesters wearing the kinds of surgical masks used to shield against air contamination. Some entered the chamber afterward, occasionally bursting out into protest during the hearing. Kicking off with Rex Tillerson’s confirmation last week, similar scenes have been playing out in Senate committee chambers since confirmation hearings began, and promise to continue well after the protesters in town for the inauguration head home.
If he sails through with enough votes, Pruitt — who has initiated no fewer than 14 suits against the EPA in his tenure as Oklahoma Attorney General — would become that agency’s head. As they’ve shown at other confirmation hearings over the last two weeks, climate groups are not prepared to take Trump’s appointments — or administration — lightly. As the president-elect fills his cabinet with fossil fuel-funded cabinet picks, fights against the White House and that industry may become one and the same.
“If you did a Google Image search for ‘fossil fuel industry puppet,’ you would find Scott Pruitt’s face. He’s the worst case scenario,” says Deirdre Shelly, U.S. national organizer at 350.org and a force behind many of this week’s energy and environment-related cabinet hearings protests. “Before Trump is even sworn in, we need to make sure that that the majority of people who didn’t vote for him are visible and fired up.”
Pruitt has received more than $300,000 from the fossil fuel industry since 2002. Among those chipping in were Murray Energy Corp., which contributed some $50,000 to Liberty 2.0, a Super PAC backing Pruitt, in August. Thanks to lax rules surrounding cabinet appointees and Super PACs, Murray and other energy companies could legally do the same this year if the Senate confirms him. Facing flack over ethics concerns, though, Pruitt has stated more recently that he’ll move to close both Liberty 2.0 and Oklahoma Strong Leadership, another super PAC associated with him.
That Pruitt is distancing himself from his PACs didn’t stop Murray Energy from paying a van full of uniform-clad miners to show up and support him at yesterday’s hearing, even as many were unable to enter the chamber where it was taking place.
Bryant Arnold, an engineer at Murray’s Marshall County Mine, was among the miners sent up to represent the company. Because he’s on salary, his trip to Washington subbed out for a day spent underground, where he usually starts work around 5:30 in the morning. Having faced declines over the last several years, coal business, Arnold says, “is picking up with Trump, too. Our investors have a lot more faith in us.”
He and others who traveled up, mainly from West Virginia and Ohio, were concerned about what they saw as EPA overreach and Obama’s eagerness to shutter coal mines. In order to close coal plants, he said, “you need to have [a plan] in place before you lay everyone off. You’ve got to have plans to take care of those people.”
Those concerns — along with some encouragement from Murray management, say the miners — were a large part what drove Arnold and many other miners to vote for Trump, who has promised to bring coal jobs back to the region despite the industry’s declining prospects. Through the course of the 2016 election cycle, the company hosted fundraising dinners supporting both Ted Cruz and Trump.
“It was either vote for Trump and help our jobs,” Arnold says, “or vote for [Hillary] Clinton and lose our jobs.”
While all of the miners In These Times talked to voiced a strong distaste for Clinton, they weren’t as down on this year’s other Democratic presidential candidate. “I liked Bernie. He was another one who wanted to do some change,” Stuart, another miner from West Virginia said (he preferred not to give his last name). “I think he had some good ideas. But I didn’t like the fact that he wanted to give things away,” referring to Sanders’s proposals for free college and expanded entitlements. Sanders won West Virginia’s Democratic Primary by more than 15 percent, and Clinton went on to lose the state handily in the general election.
“[Trump] doesn’t talk like a politician. If you ask him a question he gives you an answer,” Arnold says. “He may say some rude things sometime, but that’s how he feels. It’s straight to the point, and sometimes straight to the point is rude.”
Though they were there to support Pruitt, Arnold and company weren’t against regulation outright — mainly just the kind they saw as likely to close mines and coal-fired plants. “The EPA has a place,” Arnold says.
Leon Lieser, 70, voted twice for Bill Clinton before crossing the aisle to vote for Trump, whose campaign sticker emblazoned his hard hat. He worked for years as a strip miner, where a top layer of earth is stripped away to get at coal relatively near the surface. “Where strip mining got into trouble was with the mountaintop removal,” Lieser tells In These Times, referencing a kind of surface mining where the tops of mountains are leveled to expose buried coal. “It ruined a lot of good streams. It’s the ugliest thing in the world. It looks like a war zone,” he says. He is happy about mountaintop removal’s decline in recent years. “It’s over regulated now, which is a good thing.”
As the miners traveled back to West Virginia Wednesday, a several dozen-strong climate contingent was planning an inauguration-day action at a Quaker meeting house near DuPont Circle. They’re one of several issue-based contingents participating in a series of coordinated early-morning demonstrations on Friday, under the banner of “Disrupt J20,” just before the inauguration. For now, the group’s specific plans are being kept mostly under wraps. But they — like those showing up to confirmation hearings — are eager to greet Trump’s administration with a confrontational tone.
“The climate movement is in a position where, in order to be serious, our plans have to include some kind of strategy for overthrowing the incoming administration. We have to be working towards regime change,” says Tim DeChristopher, who attended Wednesday night’s meeting of the J20 climate contingent. DeChristopher is perhaps best known for gumming up a 2008 Bureau of Land Management auction, meant to sell off land to fossil fuel companies. He was convicted on felony charges, and sentenced to two years in federal prison, of which he served 21 months.
Part of the logic behind J20, he argues, is “to harness the anger and resistance that’s out there, which includes a huge number of folks that are newly radicalized and newly engaged, and show them that there’s a place for that spirit of resistance that they’re feeling right now. That they’re not alone.”
If the number of people flooding into D.C. to protest this weekend is any indication, they won’t be. And they aren’t likely to make the jobs of Pruitt or any of Trump’s other appointees any easier.
Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at The New Republic and author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet — And How We Fight Back. She is co-author of A Planet To Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal and co-editor of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff.