By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate confirmed President Donald Trump's pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency on Friday over the objections of Democrats and environmentalists worried he will gut the agency, as the administration readies executive orders to ease regulation on drillers and miners.
The installation of Scott Pruitt, who sued the agency he intends to lead more than a dozen times as Oklahoma attorney general, reinforces expectations on both sides of the political divide that America will cede its position as a leader in the global fight on climate change.
Senators voted 52-46 to approve Pruitt, who was to be sworn in later on Friday afternoon at the White House.
Only one Republican, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, voted against him. Two Democrats from energy-producing states, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, voted for his confirmation.
"I have no doubt that Scott will return the EPA to its core objectives,” said Republican Senator James Inhofe, also of Oklahoma, adding the agency had been guilty of “federal overreach, unlawful rule making, and duplicative red tape,” during President Barack Obama's presidency.
The nomination of Pruitt, who sued the EPA more than a dozen times on behalf of his oil-producing state and has doubted the science of climate change, upset many former and current agency employees.
Nearly 800 former EPA staff urged the Senate to reject Pruitt in a letter this week, saying he had "shown no interest in enforcing environmental laws." Earlier this month, about 30 current employees at an EPA regional office in Chicago joined a protest against Pruitt held by green groups.
Trump is likely to issue executive orders as soon as next week to reshape the EPA, sources said.
The Republican president has promised to kill Obama's Clean Power Plan, currently held up in the courts, that aims to slash carbon emissions from coal and natural gas fired power plants.
Trump also wants to give states more authority over environmental issues by striking down federal regulations on drilling technologies and getting rid of an Obama rule that sought to clarify the EPA's jurisdiction over streams and rivers.
Conservatives warmly welcomed Pruitt's confirmation.
"For far too long the EPA has acted in an overzealous manner, ignoring the separation of powers, the role of states and the rights of property owners," said Nick Loris, an economist at the Heritage Foundation.
Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, however, said he was concerned that if the administration does not enforce emissions cuts such as outlined in the Clean Power Plan, it would increase U.S. pollution and harm the country's leadership in international efforts to curb climate change.
Opponents of Pruitt also protested his ties to the energy industry. Republicans have the majority in the Senate, but Democrats spoke through Thursday night and Friday morning on the Senate floor, trying to extend debate on Pruitt until later in February when 3,000 emails between him and energy companies will likely be revealed by a judge.
An Oklahoma judge ruled this week that Pruitt will have to turn over the emails between his office and energy companies by Tuesday after a watchdog group, the Center for Media and Democracy, sued for their release. The judge will review and perhaps hold back some of the emails before releasing them, a court clerk said.
Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer told reporters that Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell had moved to "strap blinders" on his fellow Republicans by not waiting for the release of Pruitt's emails.
Environmentalists decried the approval. "If you don’t believe in climate science, you don’t belong at the EPA," said May Boeve, the head of environmentalist group 350.org.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Frances Kerry and Alistair Bell)