Scott Pruitt told EPA employees Tuesday that he’s committed to protecting the environment and upholding the agency’s core mission, but he also signaled that major changes are ahead as he begins to dismantle much of former President Obama’s climate change agenda.
In his first address to the agency workforce, Mr. Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who was confirmed as EPA administrator last Friday, said he intends to keep an open mind and draw from the experience of those inside the department. Much of the workforce has seemed uneasy at best with the appointment of Mr. Pruitt; some EPA workers publicly opposed his nomination, an unprecedented move that underscores just how radically different the new administrator’s approach will be.
Mr. Pruitt avoided any serious discussions of policy Tuesday and instead focused on rallying a skeptical workforce.
“We ought to be able to get together and wrestle through some very difficult issues and do so in a civil manner. We ought to be able to be thoughtful and exchange ideas and engage in debate and make sure we do find answers to these problems,” he said. “I seek to be a good listener. You can’t lead if you don’t listen.”
Mr. Pruitt has taken the helm at the EPA amid staunch resistance from Democrats and swirling questions about his relationship with the oil-and-gas sector. Tuesday also marked the deadline for the Oklahoma attorney general’s office to turn over roughly 2,600 emails containing Mr. Pruitt’s communications with fossil fuels firms.
Those emails will not be made public by the state of Oklahoma, and instead will be turned over to the Center for Media and Democracy, which sued to gain access to the documents. The Center has said it will begin posting the emails online after they’ve been received.
The Oklahoma attorney general’s office said Tuesday it complied with a judge’s order to turn over those emails.
“This broad disclosure should provide affirmation that, despite politically motivated allegations, the office of the attorney general remains fully committed to the letter and spirit of the Open Records Act,” Lincoln Ferguson, spokesman for the office, said in a statement late Tuesday afternoon.
Senate Democrats last week unsuccessfully tried to delay a vote on Mr. Pruitt’s nomination until the emails were released, arguing they could provide vital information into his connections to oil-and-gas companies.
Mr. Pruitt hasn’t publicly addressed the email controversy, though he sought to reassure senators in confirmation hearings last month that he’s not beholden to the oil-and-gas sector.
Meanwhile, the new EPA chief has been crystal-clear on his intention to begin returning regulatory authority to the states by systematically undoing much of the EPA’s work over the past eight years. He said federal environmental regulations often have been unnecessarily cumbersome and expensive, and have created confusion rather than clarity.
“Regulations ought to make things regular. Regulators exist to give certainty to those they regulate,” he said. “I seek to ensure that we engender the trust of those at the state level, that those at the state level see us as partners and not as adversaries.”
Specifically, Mr. Pruitt is expected to begin dismantling Obama-era EPA regulations like the Clean Power Plan, which sets limits on carbon emissions from power plants, and the Waters of the U.S. rule, which gave the EPA broad authority over most bodies of water across the country. Other regulations also are likely on the chopping block.
Environmentalists bristled at Tuesday’s remarks, both for their substance and for the fact that Mr. Pruitt quoted John Muir, a famous conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club, one of the nation’s most prominent environmental activist groups.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in,” Mr. Pruitt said, quoting Muir and drawing a rebuke from the Sierra Club.
“John Muir is rolling over in his grave at the notion of someone as toxic to the environment as Scott Pruitt taking over the EPA,” Michael Brune, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.