WASHINGTON The new head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said on Tuesday that America need not choose between jobs and the environment, in a nod to the energy industry as the White House prepares executive orders that could come as soon as this week to roll back Obama-era regulation.
“I believe that we as an agency, and we as a nation, can be both pro-energy and jobs, and pro-environment,” Scott Pruitt
said in his first address to staff. “We don’t have to choose between the two.”
Critics of the agency have complained that regulations ushered in by former President Barack Obama have killed thousands of energy jobs by imposing restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions and by limiting areas open to coal mining and oil drilling.
But Democrats, environmental advocates and many of the EPA’s current and former staff worry President Donald Trump’s appointment of Pruitt signals a reversal in America’s progress cleaning air and water and in fighting global climate change.
Pruitt sued the agency he now leads more than a dozen times while attorney general of Oklahoma to stop federal environmental rules, and has expressed doubts about the science behind climate change.
He struck a conciliatory tone in his address, saying he would “listen, learn and lead” and that he valued civil discussion and the contributions of career staff.
Trump is expected to sign executive orders aimed at reshaping U.S. environmental policy as early as this week, the Washington Post reported. He would instruct the Department of the Interior to lift a ban on new coal mining leases on federal lands and would require the EPA to ease greenhouse gas emissions curbs on electric utilities, according to the report.
The orders would also require the EPA to change Obama’s Waters of the United States rule that details which U.S. waterways fall under federal environmental protection, according to the report.
The White House did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the Washington Post story.
Pruitt was confirmed by the U.S. Senate last week after contentious hearings that focused on his record as top prosecutor of oil- and gas-producing state Oklahoma.
“Pruitt has been a shill for the fossil fuel industry his entire career, and there’s no reason to believe he’s going to stop now,” said League of Conservation Voters senior vice president Tiernan Sittenfeld.
But many Republican lawmakers view Pruitt as a refreshing change at the top of an agency they have long accused of federal overreach.
Both Trump and Pruitt have expressed doubts about climate change, and Trump vowed during his 2016 campaign for the White House to pull the United States out of a global pact to fight it.
Trump has promised to slash environmental regulation ushered in by Obama, and to help bolster the drilling and mining industries, but without hurting air and water quality.
A spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute, which represents oil and gas companies, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Before Pruitt’s confirmation, some 800 former EPA staff signed a letter urging senators to reject him, and around 30 current EPA staff joined a protest set up by the environmental group Sierra Club in Chicago.
Liz Purchia, who headed EPA public affairs during the Obama administration, said Pruitt may struggle to get staff to quickly dismantle regulations. Accomplishing agency priorities was “no easy task” when political appointees and career workers at the EPA agreed most of the time in the Obama years, Purchia said. “Let’s see how well they do getting staff, who feel disrespected, to follow them.”
Democrats had sought to delay Pruitt’s nomination over questions about his ties to the oil industry in Oklahoma.
In Oklahoma, a state judge ruled last week that he will have to turn over thousands of emails between his office and energy companies by Tuesday after a watchdog group, the Center for Media and Democracy, sued for their release.
The judge will review and perhaps hold back some of the emails before releasing them, a court clerk said.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Howard Goller and Alistair Bell)