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Democrats fire opening shots in EPA leadership battle

Six members of the U.S. Senate seemingly have kicked off the confirmation fight against Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has been nominated by President-elect Donald Trump to succeed Gina McCarthy as administrator of the U.S. EPA.

In a Dec. 27 letter, the members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee asked Pruitt to disclose his ties with the fossil fuel industry. Signing on to the letter were Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.; Edward Markey, D-Mass.; Jeffrey Merkley, D-Ore.; Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Benjamin Cardin, D-Md.; and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. The EPW committee has jurisdiction over EPA confirmations.

The letter is in response to a report from 2014 in The New York Times that resurfaced upon the announcement of Pruitt's nomination. In that report, the Times found that a letter purportedly written by Pruitt in fact had been penned by attorneys from one of Oklahoma's largest oil and gas companies, Devon Energy Corp.

"We have been troubled that as attorney general of Oklahoma you used, nearly verbatim, industry talking points in official correspondence your office sent to EPA concerning EPA's estimation of methane pollution in your state," the senators wrote. "We now know about your close relationship with Devon Energy and that you appear to have been willing to accept its representations about its business practices without independent confirmation or analysis."

The senators warned that the question of whether Pruitt will be able to lead the EPA in a way that is not "beholden to special or secret interests" will be given "full airing" during his confirmation hearings.

Another issue troubling the senators is Pruitt's association with a group called the Rule of Law Defense Fund. According to its website, the RLDF is a public policy organization for issues relevant to the nation's Republican attorneys general. The group's website tracks litigation and policy news, such as the participation of Republican attorneys general in litigation against the EPA's Clean Power Plan.

Pruitt is a member of RLDF's board, and while the nonprofit's tax arrangements mean it does not have to disclose its donors, the senators said the Koch brothers of Koch Industries have contributed.

The senators asked for a full disclosure of Pruitt's relationship with the energy industry to help them determine whether the nominee is capable of running the EPA without outside influence.

Specifically, the senators requested detailed lists of the RLDF's donors, meetings, fundraisers and funding requests; all RLDF expenditures over $100 that have benefited Pruitt, including travel expenses; all communications between Pruitt and the RLDF related to its establishment; all the federal and state legislation or regulations on which the fund has taken a position; as well as RLDF-organized legal briefs and letters to federal lawmakers.

"The confirmation process, starting with your responses to committee questions before your hearing, is an opportunity for you to dispel the notion that the advocacy you have undertaken on environmental issues as attorney general of Oklahoma has been directed by and for the benefit of the energy industry," the senators wrote.

Should Democrats wish to stymie Pruitt's confirmation, as they have pledged to do, they face a tough uphill climb given the Republican majority in both chambers of Congress. Markey previously called Pruitt "unsuitable to lead the EPA."