WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a frequent critic of environmental regulations, appeared to offer support Wednesday for a federally directed Chesapeake Bay cleanup program he once sued to stop.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has repeatedly sued the agency he is now poised to oversee, told a Senate panel he would use his authority to enforce the pollution reductions pledged by six states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and he would push for federal funding for the bay's restoration.
Pruitt and 20 other state attorneys general joined farmers in a lawsuit to stop the 2010 deal.
"That process represents what should occur — for states to join together and enter into an agreement to address water quality issues," Pruitt, 48, told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee during his confirmation hearing. "And as it relates to enforcing that [agreement], I can commit to you that, in fact, I will do so," he added.
The remarks, which came during an exchange with Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, were among several in which Pruitt appeared to break with his own record, as well as with positions taken by the incoming president.
Notably, Pruitt said he disagreed with Trump's claim that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by China.
"I do not believe climate change is a hoax," he said. "The climate is changing, and human activity contributes to that in some manner."
But Pruitt declined to say whether fossil fuel emissions are primarily responsible for that change.
Several environmental groups said they remain skeptical about his commitment to the EPA's mission, given his litigious history with the agency.
Eric Schaeffer, director of the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project, said he worries that Pruitt's comments imply the Trump administration would act as a "master of ceremonies," passively coordinating collaboration among states on environmental issues rather than aggressively enforcing federal laws such as the Clean Water Act.
Schaeffer, a former EPA official under presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, pointed to Pruitt's assertion that the EPA's relationship with states should be "informational."
"He seems to be suggesting that's what the EPA should be — that they would provide lunch and coffee and name tags and the states would sort of work it out," he said. "The role of the EPA is 'informational'? That's just wrong."
Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said Wednesday that he would vote against the nominee.
"He has been a puppet for Big Oil and rejects the basic science of climate change," Van Hollen said.
Because Cabinet nominees may require only a majority vote of the Senate for confirmation, Trump's picks might pass with Republican support alone.
"Through the course of his career, Attorney General Pruitt has stood out as a champion of state and individual rights and has fought against federal overreach," said Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma. "Far from being an enemy of the environment, Scott has proven himself to be an expert at balancing economic growth with environmental stewardship."
The EPA established a Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan in 2010 that crosses the estuary's watershed, including six states and the District of Columbia. The blueprint laid out a "diet" of pollution that the bay could withstand, including limits on pollutants like fertilizers, sediment, industrial wastewater and urban stormwater.
Pruitt, concerned that the agreement could set a precedent that could be applied to other parts of the country, joined a lawsuit filed by the American Farm Bureau Federation soon after the EPA announced it.
The Supreme Court declined last year to hear the case, which had the effect of upholding the plan.
The pollution limits have guided policies adopted in the years since, such as incentives for farmers to plant cover crops, requirements that wastewater treatment plants spend money on upgrades, and the collection of the stormwater remediation fee that opponents derided as a "rain tax."
Environmental groups said those efforts appear to be working (with the help of a drop in precipitation in recent years). Recent assessments of bay health show blue crab populations, underwater grass growth and water clarity at their highest levels in years.
But environmentalists fear that progress could be reversed if the EPA does not maintain pressure on the states, which in the coming years will be asked to lay out increasingly aggressive plans toward a 2025 cleanup deadline.
"I truly hope [Pruitt] has changed his position and will stand by the cleanup plan for the bay," said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake.
Chuck Fry, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, said he was pleased by both Pruitt's and Cardin's "continued support and funding for bay restoration efforts underway in Maryland."
Cardin said after the hearing that he saw little wiggle room in the nominee's remarks.
"I wanted to make sure that he made a public commitment to the federal partnership with the bay, the enforcement and the funding," Cardin said. "So, I was pleased to see him say that on the record. Obviously, I have concerns about his philosophy of the EPA, which could affect the Chesapeake Bay."
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said he had not heard the details of Pruitt's remarks Wednesday, but said he plans to join with other state attorneys general in opposing the Oklahoman's confirmation.
"He is someone who really stands in opposition to everything the Environmental Protection Agency is charged to do," Frosh said.