WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump's choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday that climate change is real, breaking with both the president-elect and his own past statements.
In response to questions from Democrats during his Senate confirmation hearing, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said he disagreed with Trump's earlier claims 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," Pruitt said.
The 48-year-old Republican 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 he claimed that "scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind."
At the hearing before the Senate Energy and Public Works Committee, Pruitt conceded that human activity contributes "in some manner" to climate change. He continued, however, to question whether the burning of fossil fuels is the primary reason, and refused to say whether sea levels are rising.
Pruitt's testimony came shortly 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.
Pressed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to answer in detail about his beliefs about climate change, Pruitt responded that his personal opinion was "immaterial" to how he would enforce environmental laws.
In his current post, Pruitt joined a multistate lawsuit opposing the Obama administration's plan to limit planet-warming carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. Pruitt also sued over the EPA's recent expansion of water bodies regulated under the Clean Water Act. It has been opposed by industries that would be forced to clean up polluted wastewater.
The lawsuits are among at least eight pending cases Pruitt has joined against the agency he is in line to lead.
Under questioning from Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., Pruitt said he has "every willingness to recuse" himself on a case-by-case basis if directed to do so by the EPA's ethics office. Markey said that was not enough to reassure Americans of his objectivity, adding that Pruitt should commit to a blanket recusal.
Pruitt said that if were confirmed by the GOP-run Senate, he would work 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."
Environmentalists opposing Pruitt's nomination cite his cozy relationships with oil and gas industry executives who have donated to his political campaigns.
As the hearing got underway, shouting could be heard from people who were not allowed in. The room accommodated fewer than 100 people; most seats were taken by congressional staff, reporters and others who were allowed in early. Only a few 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!"
Later, a group of coal miners wearing hard hats were allowed in to show support for Pruitt. Trump has pledged to bring back tens of thousands of lost coal mining jobs once inaugurated, though he has not yet detailed how. The president-elect has also said he will "renegotiate" the international accord to reduce carbon emissions signed in Paris at the end of 2015.
Senate Republicans uniformly praised Pruitt what they described as his robust 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. He reassigned his staff to file more than a dozen lawsuits challenging EPA regulations.
Senate Democrats focused 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.
Earlier this month, Pruitt resigned from the board of the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a Washington-based group supporting the legal agendas of GOP attorney generals that Whitehouse described as "a complete black hole into which at least $1 million goes." In his response, Pruitt declined to provide details about whether the group's donors included fossil fuel companies or utilities with regulatory issues before EPA.
Though Pruitt ran unopposed for a second term in 2014, public campaign finance reports show he raised more than $700,000, much of it from people in the energy and utility industries.
Pruitt has also faced criticism from environmentalists for failing to take any action to help curb a dramatic spike in earthquake activity in Oklahoma that scientists have linked to the underground disposal of oil and gas wastewater.
Pruitt said his support for legal positions advocated by oil and gas companies was in the best interest of Oklahoma, 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