President Donald Trump's newly-minted head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, cautioned the agency's staff to avoid "abuses" of their authority in an inaugural address to assembled employees, amid signs the White House plans to roll back key Obama-era climate and water initiatives.
In a 15-minute address, Pruitt painted a broad picture of a more constrained EPA - saying stricter adherence to "the letter of the law" when writing environmental regulations will help avoid lawsuits from corporations or states who might contend that the environmental watchdog overreached its mandate.
"Process matters," Pruitt told the EPA's staff in remarks broadcast to the agency's 15,000 employees. "We should respect that, and focus upon that, and try to avoid - not try to avoid, but do avoid - abuses that occur sometimes."
Such abuses, Pruitt said, include "using the guidance process to do rule-making," and "engaging in... regulation through litigation."
In his previous job as Attorney General of Oklahoma, Pruitt sued the federal agency he now leads at least 14 times, and his official web site described him as "a leading advocate against the EPA's activist agenda," in language that has since been removed.
As a result he has faced broad skepticism from current and former EPA staff as he assumes leadership.
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Pruitt opened his remarks with a tacit acknowledgement of the controversy surrounding his own appointment, and concern among environmentalists over the Trump administration's policies, with a call for "civility" among those who disagree and a pledge to "seek to be a good listener."
"This environment [in which] we live, in this country today, it is a very - forgive the reference - but it's a very toxic environment," he said. "We have jerseys that we put on, both politically and otherwise. And that's something that I think is damaging to the overall objective of finding results."
He added: "I believe we can be both pro-energy and jobs, and pro-environment; that we don't have to choose between the two."
Pruitt's address to EPA staff follows his first interview since being nominated in November, in which he told The Wall Street Journal that he expects the Trump administration to quickly withdraw from the Clean Power Plan - President Barack Obama's signature regulation limiting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants - as well as from the Waters of the United States rule, which grants the government expanded oversight over the nation's waterways.
Asked by conservative columnist Kimberley Strassel whether the EPA will seek to regulate carbon dioxide, which scientists broadly agree is the key source of climate change, Pruitt said he wasn't sure the agency has the authority to do so.
"There will be a rule-making process to withdraw those rules, and that will kick off a process," he told the Journal, which is owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who has personal ties to the Trump family. "And 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."
The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 in Massachusetts v. EPA that the Clean Air Act provides the agency with authorization to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the planet to warm.
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The Trump administration is drafting a pair of executive orders aimed at rolling back both policies, The Washington Post reported on Monday, citing unidentified sources.
The first will purportedly instruct Pruitt's EPA to start rewriting the Clean Power Plan, and instruct the Bureau of Land Management to lift a moratorium on federal coal leasing.
The second order will instruct the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to revamp the Waters of the United States rule.
"Scott Pruitt has made it clear he wants to destroy the Environmental Protection Agency, and he didn't say anything today to make anyone think he's changed his mind," said Travis Nichols, a spokesperson for the environmental activist group Greenpeace.
"Every single one of Trump's nominees share the same neglect of facts and disregard for the most vulnerable communities in this country, but Scott Pruitt may be the worst of the bunch," Nichols said. "Scott Pruitt does not care about healthy communities, clean air and water, or a stable climate, so it is up to all of us to still demand those basic rights and fight for them."