Polarizing EPA chief tries to reassure staff
President Donald Trump’s newly installed environmental chief Scott Pruitt laid out his vision for reshaping the way the federal government safeguards air and water, as he tried to convince skeptical federal employees that a refashioned agency can remain effective.
Pruitt addressed the Environmental Protection Agency’s workforce — including hundreds who had actively battled his confirmation — on Tuesday, in his first speech since he was sworn in as administrator Friday.
“We as an agency and we as a nation can be both pro-energy and jobs and we can be pro-environment, and we don’t have to choose between the two,” Pruitt said to employees packed inside an auditorium at the EPA’s Washington headquarters. His remarks were also streamed to EPA’s 15,000-strong workforce nationwide.
Pruitt decried a deeply politicized environment that he said creates obstacles to finding effective solutions. “We deal with very important, monumental issues with respect to our future,” he said. “We can do better as a country.”
Perhaps more than any other member of Trump’s cabinet, Pruitt is at odds with the agency he now leads. He built his political career fighting federal regulations he said stripped power away from states, and as Oklahoma attorney general, joined more than a dozen lawsuits challenging EPA actions by the Obama administration. He also appeared to relish his role as the agency’s chief antagonist; an online biography dubbed Pruitt “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”
Still, Pruitt has taken pains to emphasize that environmental regulation and economic development can go hand in hand.
In a nearly 12-minute speech that avoided addressing substantive details of EPA policy, Pruitt outlined a “cooperative federalism” approach that gives states a larger role in collaborating with the EPA on environmental matters. Pruitt said he wanted to engender trust among state regulators and carefully follow congressional dictates to write new federal rules that are tethered to the statutes that compel them.
“We need to be open and transparent and objective in how we do rulemaking and make sure we follow the letter of the law as we do so because that would send, I think, a great message to those who are regulated,” Pruitt said. “They want to know what’s expected of them.”
Pruitt sought to soothe unease among the agency’s rank and file, with remarks that were measured and focused on process — far from the bombastic declarations about slashing EPA staff and overhauling its use of science made by former Trump advisers.
Now Pruitt is trying to convince EPA employees that by focusing on core functions, the agency can do a better job keeping pollution out of the air and cleaning toxic chemicals from old industrial sites.
As administrator, Pruitt is positioned to undo some of the same agency regulations he challenged in court, including the Clean Power Plan that slashes greenhouse gas emissions from electricity and the Waters of the U.S. rule that defined which waterways are subject to pollution regulation. Trump administration officials have drafted documents directing Pruitt to begin dismantling those measures,helping fulfill Trump’s pledge to eviscerate rules the president has said throttle U.S. energy development.
Some conservatives also are pressing Pruitt to go further and undo the legal underpinning for many Obama-era environmental rules by questioning the scientific basis for them.
Pruitt’s efforts will face internal opposition from an agency that made combating climate change its top priority over the past few years.
Scores of EPA scientists, experts and lawyers actively fought Pruitt’s nomination, beseeching senators to vote against him and organizing opposition via social media. The union representing agency employees launched an online campaign against Pruitt’s agenda under the headline, “Save the EPA.” Nearly 800 former EPA officials also signed a letter opposing Pruitt’s nomination.
If Pruitt asks the agency’s career civil servants to make 180-degree pivots on policy, he may have a hard time getting them to go along, said Kevin Book, managing director of the Washington-based research firm ClearView Energy Partners. It may take years for frustrated civil servants to walk out the door of an agency for good, but in the meantime, they can walk much slower inside it, Book said in an interview.
“You don’t get an environmental scientist going to work at the EPA for the privilege of helping to drill more wells,” Book said. “They’re bound by all of the professional responsibilities and limitations that are imposed by their employer, but they are a force to be reckoned with.”
Signs of that resistance have already appeared, with current and former employees setting up Twitter accounts to highlight perceived abuses.
Many agency employees are veterans of presidential transitions and know their fealty is to U.S. law, said Jeff Holmstead, a top EPA official under former President George W. Bush.
“There is a minority — and I really do think it’s a relatively small number — of people at EPA who believe their mission is more important than their obligation to the law,” Holmstead, a partner at Bracewell LLP, said. That opposition can feed leaks to Congress, the press and the public, he said.
Pruitt spoke Tuesday in the Rachel Carson Green Room, named for a noted marine biologist whose work highlighting the dangers of widespread pesticide use helped drive a global environmental movement.
“You can’t lead, unless you listen,” Pruitt said, promising to do just that as administrator.