Trump’s EPA Nominee Draws Friends and Foes to his Confirmation Hearing

In These Times talks to the coal miners sent by Murray Energy to support Scott Pruitt, and the climate organizers who showed up to oppose him.

Kate Aronoff January 19, 2017

Climate justice protesters campaign to stop Scott Pruitt's selection to head of the EPA. (Thelma Young / 350.org)

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.

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 candidate. “I liked Bernie," says one.

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 régime change,” says Tim DeChristo­pher, who attend­ed Wednes­day night’s meet­ing of the J20 cli­mate con­tin­gent. DeChristo­pher is per­haps best known for gum­ming up2008 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 Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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