Last week, when President-elect Donald Trump announced his plan to nominate Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, West Virginia political leaders — constant critics of the EPA under the Obama administration — quickly voiced their approval of Trump’s pick.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., called Pruitt “exactly the type of person we need to lead the EPA during this critical time.”
In a press release, Capito said Pruitt, who has sued to try to block a variety of EPA rules to reduce air and water pollution, “has been a driving force behind the legal battle against President Obama’s environmental policies and far-reaching regulations.”
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who has likewise sued to challenge Obama’s EPA, issued a statement to say he was confident Pruitt is a leader who “shares President-elect Trump’s pledge to eliminate the burdensome, job-killing regulations brought on by eight years of unlawful overreach.”
But while Pruitt is indeed a vocal opponent of the Obama EPA’s rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in public statements earlier this year, he wasn’t exactly on board with West Virginia political leaders, who focus their blame for the ongoing decline of the state’s coal industry on federal government environmental rules.
“This didn’t happen as a result of EPA’s heavy hand,” Pruitt testified during a House subcommittee hearing in May.
Citing the “shift in the electricity generation mix” away from coal and toward natural gas and his own state’s gas industry, Pruitt told lawmakers, “Rather, it happened because of fracking and the positive market forces that those sorts of Oklahoma innovations create.”
During his campaign, Trump promised a large audience of coal miners during a rally in Charleston that, when elected, he would get rid of “these ridiculous rules and regulations” so the miners could get back to work.
In a Facebook post on Thursday announcing his intention to nominate Pruitt, Trump complained the EPA “has spent taxpayer dollars on an out-of-control anti-energy agenda that has destroyed millions of jobs.”
The post said Pruitt would “rescind all job-destroying executive actions and eliminate all barriers to responsible energy production.” The Facebook post said these moves would “create at least a half-million jobs each year.”
Pruitt, though, offered a different version of what’s likely to happen to the nation’s coal industry, telling the Environment Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology that “market-driven” reductions in coal’s share of the nation’s energy mix are likely to continue “for years to come.”
“As natural gas becomes increasingly affordable, it becomes an increasingly attractive alternative to coal,” Pruitt testified.
Since Pruitt’s nomination was announced, much of the focus has been on his views on climate change and specifically his opposition in court to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the rule to require power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Pruitt, a Kentucky native, has also challenged other EPA initiatives to reduce air pollution and agency water pollution rules.
Business interests generally, and the coal industry specifically, have praised the nomination of Pruitt.
A spokesman for Murray Energy, West Virginia’s largest coal producer, said Friday that Pruitt “has been a strong advocate for a fair and balanced approach to environmental protections” and “will be a valuable asset to the Trump administration and to the citizens of the United States.”
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry group, said Pruitt would “be a strong advocate for sensible policies that are good for the environment, as well as mindful of the need for affordable and reliable electricity.”
Environmental organizations have harshly criticized Trump’s choice of Pruitt.
The Environmental Defense Fund said Pruitt was “a deeply troubling choice” and Pruitt “has built his political career by trying to undermine EPA’s mission of environmental protection.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council noted a New York Times story had reported that a letter Pruitt sent to the EPA in 2014 asserting the agency overestimated air pollution from Oklahoma natural gas operations was actually written by a lawyer for one of the state’s largest oil and gas companies, Devon Energy.
One national press account by McClatchy Newspapers focused attention on a closely related issue of importance to West Virginians who supported Trump: Pruitt’s views on coal’s decline, the cause of that downturn and whether action by the EPA will bring back the thousands of coal jobs lost in the state over the last decade.
“It’s long been understood cheap and abundant shale gas was the primary culprit in declining coal production,” said Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a progressive group that has encouraged efforts to diversify the state’s economy.
Boettner also noted, while market forces have played a large role in natural gas displacing coal, government-funded research — some of it in Morgantown — helped develop the hydraulic fracturing techniques that have partly driven the huge increase in domestic gas production.
James Van Nostrand, a professor and director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at the West Virginia University College of Law, wondered last week what the point of reversing the EPA’s climate change rules or, more broadly, dismantling the agency would be if federal environmental rules were not the central cause of the coal industry’s downturn.
“[Pruitt] pretty much admits that the EPA is not the driver in the decline of the coal industry, yet rails about the impact of the Clean Power Plan on the coal industry,” Van Nostrand said. “The Trump con game continues: The EPA was not the cause of the decline of the coal industry, and dismantling the EPA is not going to bring the coal industry back. Pruitt’s testimony concedes this point.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.