Kathleen Hartnett White, the nominee to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality, was challenged by senators over her doubts about the causes of climate change, going against the scientific consensus that man-made greenhouse gases are the primary driver of rising temperatures and associated impacts.
"It's likely that CO2 emissions from human activity have some influence on the climate," she said. "But CO2 in the atmosphere has none of the characteristics of a pollutant that contaminates and fouls and all of that that has direct -- can have direct impact on human health as an atmospheric gas.
"It's a plant nutrient," she added.
Of the role of science, White said: "I think science should overwhelmingly guide assessments and all of that, but I don't think they dictate policy results."
Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee blasted her comments.
White holds "positions ... so far out of the mainstream that they're not just outliers, they're outrageous," charged Sen. Ed. Markey, D-Massachusetts.
"And from my perspective," he continued, "you have a fringe voice that denies science and economics and reality."
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, said White "has shown a disdain for science, a disdain for the laws and regulations already on the books, and a staggering disrespect for people who have views with which she disagrees."
White appeared alongside Andrew Wheeler, a coal lobbyist nominated to be EPA's deputy administrator.
Both also voiced their skepticism about the conclusions of a major US government-led study of the topic released last week.
White called the report "the product of the past administration."
Wheeler said he had not yet read the report and still has questions about human contributions to climate change.
"I believe that man has an impact on the climate but what's not completely understood is what the impact is," said Wheeler.
The Climate Science Special Report
released by the Trump administration found "no convincing alternative explanation" for the changing climate other than "human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases."
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt
also cast doubt on the report's conclusions and said the findings would not change the process he began last month to roll back the Clean Power Plan. The plan was a cornerstone of the Obama administration's environmental efforts but has been criticized as overreach by industry and tied up in lawsuits.
"We're taking the very necessary step to evaluate our authority under the Clean Air Act and we'll take steps that are required to issue a subsequent rule. That's our focus," Pruitt told USA Today in an interview
. "Does this report have any bearing on that? No it doesn't. It doesn't impact the withdrawal and it doesn't impact the replacement."
Conflict with coal company
At the hearing, Wheeler declined to say specifically how he would handle conflicts of interest with his former client, Murray Energy, and its outspoken CEO, Robert Murray. The company has filed several lawsuits against the EPA. Wheeler said only that his law firm was not involved in the suits and that he will continue to discuss and follow guidance from "career ethics officials at the agency."
He acknowledged Murray showed him a list of policy requests he was sending to Pruitt, but did not recall what was in the document and said he would "have client confidentiality concerns" discussing it further. Murray recently told E&E News that the administration has acted on the about a third of the recommendations.
"I looked at it and handed it back to him," Wheeler said of the list.
The nominees had their defenders, too. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, noted he had worked with Wheeler for years, and that data rebuts critics' claims of White.
"Some of the extremists are driving a narrative that you hate the environment and work to give cover to polluters," Inhofe told her.