In one of his first actions as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt told a roomful of agency employees that while he rues the current “toxic” political climate, he wants EPA to follow a definitive regulatory process and the rule of law, thereby avoiding costly legal battles. He added that EPA's counterparts in state government need to see the federal agency as "partners...not adversaries."
And in an interview with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) conducted last week just before the Senate confirmed him to lead the agency, Pruitt said he plans to quickly withdraw two proposals formulated under the Obama administration: the Clean Power Plan (CPP) and the Clean Water Rule (CWR), the latter of which was designed to clarify what constitutes Waters of the United States (WOTUS).
"I know it's very difficult to capture in one speech the vision and direction of an agency," Pruitt told EPA employees at the start of his comments Tuesday, which lasted about 11 minutes. In a nod to the controversy surrounding his nomination, he added "I also recognize that you don't know me very well...other than maybe what you've read in the newspaper and seen on the news...
"The environment that we live here in this country today is, forgive the reference, a very toxic environment. We have jerseys that we put on, both politically and otherwise. That's something that I think is damaging to the overall objective of finding results and answers to some very challenging issues that we face as a country...
"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 that we do find answers to these problems, but do so with civility."
Pruitt stressed that he believes "regulations ought to make things regular," and that companies, including those in the oil and gas industry, deserve to work in a regulatory framework that provides certainty.
"Those that we regulate ought to know what is expected of them so that they can plan and allocate resources to comply," Pruitt said. "That's really the job of a regulator. And the process that we engage in adopting regulations is very important, because it sends a message: that we take seriously our role of taking comment and offering response and then making informed decisions on how it's going to impact those in the marketplace -- to achieve the ends that we have in statute."
Having served previously as attorney general in Oklahoma, and to actually have sued EPA several times in the past, Pruitt said the agency should "avoid abuses that occur sometimes." Specifically, he said the agency had used the guidance process to conduct rulemaking, engaged in regulation through litigation, and relied on consent decrees that bypassed the Administrative Procedures Act.
"We need to be open, transparent and objective in how we do rulemaking and make sure that we follow the letter of the law as we do so," Pruitt said. "That will send a great message to those that are regulated, but more importantly they will know what's expected of them and they can act accordingly."
While conceding that Congress has granted some agencies in the executive branch broad powers, Pruitt said lawmakers have been "very prescriptive" with others, strongly hinting that EPA was with the latter group.
"[Congress] has been very specific on what we can and cannot do as an agency," Pruitt said. "We need to respect [and] follow that...because when we do...we avoid litigation, we avoid the uncertainty of litigation, and we reach better ends and outcomes at the end of the day."
In many instances, Congress has also given the states "a very robust and important role" in regulating environmental matters, the new administrator said, adding that EPA's regional offices serve an important purpose through "partnering with the respective of departments of environmental quality at the state level, with respect to enforcement and other related issues...
"I really believe that we can be better as a country. I believe that we as agency, and we a nation, can be both pro-energy and jobs and pro-environment, that we don't have to choose between the two."
Pruitt explained to the Wall Street Journal why he planned to withdraw the CPP and the CWR in short order.
"There's a very simple reason why this needs to happen: because the courts have seriously called into question the legality of those rules," Pruitt said. On regulating carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, he said "There will be a rulemaking process to withdraw those rules, and that will kick off a process.
"Part of that process is a very careful review of a fundamental question: Does EPA even possess the tools, under the Clean Air Act, to address this? It's a fair question to ask if we do, or whether there in fact needs to be a congressional response to the climate issue."
Last February, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay blocking implementation of the CPP until all legal challenges to the plan were resolved. Four months earlier, a federal appeals court blocked nationwide implementation of the CWR.
EPA had planned to use the CPP as a tool to compel states to develop and implement plans to reduce CO2 emissions, especially from power plants. Meanwhile, the agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers devised the CWR in an attempt to clarify what constituted WOTUS, thereby deserving protection under the Clean Water Act.
Pruitt, in his capacity as attorney general of Oklahoma, had sued EPA over both proposals.
Tuesday was also the deadline for Pruitt to turn over thousands of emails to a watchdog group. According to reports, a district court judge in Oklahoma ordered him to release 3,000 emails to the Center for Media and Democracy. The group sued Pruitt earlier this month, alleging he violated the state's Open Records Act by failing to make the emails public.