Director of Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt was sworn in by Justice Samuel Alito on Feb. 17 after the U.S. Senate confirmed him over the objections of Democrats and environmentalists worried he will gut the agency. (Reuters)

In his first full work day as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt made clear Tuesday that he intends to step back from what he sees as the agency’s regulatory overreach during the Obama administration.

Pruitt, who spent years criticizing and suing the EPA before becoming its newest leader, reiterated an argument he often had made as Oklahoma attorney general.

“The only authority that any agency has in the executive branch is the authority given to it by Congress,” he said during a noon address to employees at the agency headquarters. “We need to respect that. We need to follow that. Because when we do that, guess what happens? We avoid litigation. We avoid the uncertainty of litigation and we reach better ends and outcomes at the end of the day.”

Pruitt himself was the source of some of that legal conflict in recent years, suing the agency more than a dozen times over the course of President Barack Obama’s two terms. And those lawsuits, plus his vocal criticism of the EPA’s work generally and skepticism about climate change, have triggered palpable concerns among many longtime agency employees.

In many ways, though, the new administrator’s remarks before his staff were conciliatory. Pruitt said he had come to listen to them and outlined principles for how he planned to guide the agency, including emphasizing civility and respect for the role of states.

“In this environment we live in this country today … it’s a very toxic environment,” Pruitt said. “We have jerseys that we put on both politically and otherwise. And that’s something, I think, is damaging to finding results and answers.”

Pruitt was confirmed Friday afternoon, mostly along partisan lines in the Senate, after a process that featured much criticism of his statements about climate change, his relationships with the fossil-fuel industry and his history of litigation against the agency he’s now leading. Two Democrats in the Senate, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voted for him. One Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, voted against him.

While Republican lawmakers and industry executives welcomed his nomination, it was met with unprecedented opposition from environmental groups and from hundreds of former and current EPA employees, who argued that his track record shows little regard for environmental protection.

Pruitt’s remarks were delivered in the Rachel Carson Green Room at the EPA, a large and dramatic wood-paneled room named after the famed environmentalist whose 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” helped galvanize a movement that eventually led to the EPA’s founding. About 75 EPA employees were on hand — attendance at the event was optional, and staff could also listen or watch online — along with members of the Trump administration and dozens of reporters.

News reports have suggested that President Trump is on the verge of signing a number of executive orders to roll back Obama priorities on the environment, including the Clean Power Plan, which restricts greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, and the Waters of the U.S. regulation. But Pruitt made no explicit mention of planned policy changes in his remarks, instead focusing on what he said were a set of principles by which he would guide the agency.

Pruitt was introduced at the event by Catherine McCabe, who had served as acting administrator until his confirmation. Her remarks about his background did not mention the many occasions when he, as Oklahoma attorney general, had filed lawsuits against the agency.

“Civility is something I believe in very much,” Pruitt told the employees gathered. “We ought to be able to get together and wrestle through some difficult issues and do so in a civil manner.” He also noted that the “process” and “rule of law” matter greatly at the EPA. By contrast, he did not talk much about the agency’s actual goals, such as preserving clean air and clean water.

“Federalism matters,” Pruitt continued, pledging to forge close relationships with the states as he carries out his role. But states are likely to be highly divided over any attempt to undo Obama environmental regulations, with states such as Massachusetts, New York and California likely to oppose such efforts through state-level lawsuits much like the ones that Pruitt himself participated in against Obama’s EPA.

At one point, Pruitt actually quoted John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club — which provoked a quick response from the environmental group’s executive director, Michael Brune, that “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.”

Pruitt also said that there shouldn’t be a contradiction between environmental protection and energy production or job creation, a line also often emphasized by President George W. Bush’s administration.

“We as an agency and we as a nation can be both pro-energy and jobs and pro-environment,” Pruitt said. “That we don’t have to choose between the two. I think our nation has done better than any nation in the world at making sure we do the job of protecting our natural resources and protecting our environment while also respecting the economic growth and jobs our nation seeks to have.”

Overall, the comments were very much in line both with what Pruitt said during his confirmation hearing and the arguments he has made for years during his opposition to EPA regulations under the Obama administration. He has been a leading proponent of the notion that the EPA too often overstepped its legal authority, going beyond the language of the statutes passed by Congress to take aggressive regulatory action. In addition, Pruitt has argued that the agency often infringed on the rights of states to regulate within their own borders.

Pruitt’s remarks came shortly before the possible release by the Oklahoma attorney general’s office of thousands of his emails from his tenure there, as ordered by a judge on Thursday. The office has not said whether it will comply or appeal.

After introducing him, McCabe gave Pruitt an EPA lapel pin and an EPA hat. The new leader, a former partner of a Triple-A baseball team, said he would wear the latter when going to Washington Nationals games.

More from Energy and Environment:
Hundreds of current, former EPA employees urge Senate to reject Trump’s nominee for the agency

The West’s largest coal-fired power plant is closing. Not even Trump can save it.

Scott Pruitt, longtime adversary of EPA, confirmed to lead the agency

Trump EPA official juggles two jobs in two Washingtons, and it hasn’t gone well

 

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