WASHINGTON — In a brief introductory speech at the Environmental Protection Agency's headquarters on Tuesday, the agency's new leader, Scott Pruitt, sought to reassure leery staff of his vision for federal environmental protection under Donald Trump — one that involved the agency becoming both “pro-energy and jobs and pro-environment."
"Most of you don’t know me very well," Pruitt told roughly 100 employees gathered at EPA headquarters on Tuesday, along with thousands more watching in Washington and at regional EPA offices though the agency's internal television network.
Noting past news stories of his environmental views that have not put him in a flattering light, Pruitt added: "I look forward to sharing the rest of the story with you."
During his 12 minutes of remarks, Pruitt made clear that he wished to cede responsibility for environmental protection back to the states and limit the role of the EPA strictly to what Congress has instructed it to do, saying that regulations must be "need to be tethered to statue."
"When we do that," Pruitt told employees, "we avoid he uncertainty of litigation."
Pruitt knows about litigation against the EPA: As Oklahoma's attorney general, he led more than dozen lawsuits against the EPA on that state's behalf. During his confirmation hearing, Pruitt refused to recuse himself from the eight ongoing lawsuits Oklahoma has filed against the EPA.
Still, the Trump administration does not want to wait for Congress to act. This week, the White House is readying executive actions seeking to undo Obama-era rules meant to curtail water pollution and the release of greenhouse gases, the Washington Post reported
Going into more detail than he did during his speech, Pruitt told the The Wall Street Journal in his first interview as EPA administrator that he expects to quickly withdraw the US from Clean Power Plan, Obama's landmark proposal for curbing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
“There’s a very simple reason why this needs to happen," Pruitt said. "Because the courts have seriously called into question the legality of those rules."
But the Supreme Court, in 2007, has already ruled that EPA is obligated to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Pruitt delivered his remarks in the agency's ornate Rachel L. Carson Great Hall, named after the scientist who authored the 1962 book Silent Spring, which kickstarted the US environmental movement and ultimately led to the creation of the EPA eight years later.
Behind the cameras were security personnel from the Department of Homeland Security — whose presence at the headquarters, according to two EPA employees, was a first for the agency. Pruitt is expected to ask for an around-the-clock security detail as administrator, according to E&E News.
At the end of his speech, Pruitt quoted another famous environmentalist — John Muir, the 19th century activist and founder of the Sierra Club — as a way to reassure employees that his business-friendly approach is compatible with the agency's goal of environmental protection.
"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread," Pruitt said, quoting Muir.
The current head of the Sierra Club, Michael Brune, objected to the name drop.
“John Muir is rolling over in his grave," Brune said in a statement after the speech, "at the notion of someone as toxic to the environment as Scott Pruitt taking over the EPA."