WASHINGTON - On the eve of a Senate confirmation hearing, environmental groups are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads opposing Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as the next head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

One of the most polarizing of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominations, Pruitt is drawing fire for having sued several times to stop EPA regulations and for reportedly taking campaign contributions from industries that the agency regulates.

“Scott Pruitt stands as literally the worst nominee tapped to run the EPA,” said Natural Resources Defense Council President Rhea Suh during a press call Tuesday with the leaders of eight other environmental groups.

However, key Republican senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which holds Pruitt’s first confirmation hearing Wednesday morning, continue to strongly back him for the same reasons that he is drawing opposition from environmentalists.

Trump and Republicans have criticized the Obama administration for passing what they deem excessive environmental regulations, including reductions in carbon emissions set by the Clean Power Plan.

Targets of Pruitt's lawsuits include the Clean Power Plan.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., called him “the best man to run EPA.”

In a statement Tuesday, Inhofe said Pruitt “realizes the need to scale back the burdensome red tape EPA has become known for under the outgoing administration.

“Pruitt understands the importance of the agency and will usher in an era of responsible stewardship that doesn’t come at the cost of our domestic economy,” said Inhofe, a member of the Environment and Public Works committee.

Another committee member, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from coal-dependent West Virginia, didn’t return a press inquiry but has said Pruitt is “exactly the type of person we need to lead the EPA during this critical time.”

Meanwhile Politico reported earlier this month that a new group, Protecting America Now, is trying to raise millions dollars for an advertising and social media campaign to counter Pruitt's opponents and support his nomination.

Protecting America Now is not required to disclose donors, though political committees created by Pruitt or that support him have gotten large contributions from energy companies. Protecting America Now's representatives did not respond to an inquiry about its plans.

Though Republicans hold a slim Senate majority, Suh said environmentalists believe they can stop Pruitt's nomination by educating more voters.

Ads are targeting swing states and moderate Republicans, as opponents try to find three votes to block his nomination.

One of the groups' targets appears to be Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.

The Sierra Club last week launched anti-Pruitt ads in the state -- its second round there -- as well as Colorado, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin.

The group attacked Pruitt for not taking action as attorney general against oil and gas industry practices related to fracking, which it blames for a growing number of earthquakes in Oklahoma.

That ad appeared after the group placed an earlier digital ad in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Maine, Tennessee, Nevada, Arizona, Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana and South Dakota.

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune told reporters that Pruitt defunded an arm of Oklahoma's attorney general’s office that prosecuted environmental crimes and instead created a unit focused on challenging federal rules.

“He took watchdogs off their beat and sicked them on the people he was supposed to be protecting," Brune said.

His group delivered “Pruitt Survival Kits” to Senate offices on Tuesday with face masks and water bottles.

Another group, Clean Air Moms Action, is also running ads in Pennsylvania as well as Florida, Maine, Nevada, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee, and the District of Columbia.

It pictures a sonogram and says, “We can’t trust Scott Pruitt with our kids’ health.”

Affiliated with the Environmental Defense Fund, the group targeted Pennsylvania because environmental protection is particularly important in a state that is a leading producer of natural gas and coal.

A spokeswoman for Toomey said Tuesday that he hasn’t taken a position on Pruitt’s nomination.

Another group, NextGen Climate, also began running television ads in seven states on Saturday, alleging Pruitt's opposition to federal environmental regulations “protected corporate polluters.”

The ads ran in Arizona, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

The group’s president, Tom Steyer, told reporters Pruitt has put “the interest of corporate polluters and fossil fuel donors ahead of safety.”

Kery Murakami is the Washington, D.C. reporter for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Contact him at kmurakami@cnhi.com.

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Kery Murakami is the Washington, D.C., reporter for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at kmurakami@cnhi.com

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