NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on Saturday rallied conservatives and promised to rein in the agency.
Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Pruitt said he would focus on adhering to the formal rulemaking process and stick to the confines of federal law. At the same time, the new administrator said he would promote clean air and water and clean up Superfund sites.
"There’s some very important work to protect and provide leadership in the government space. But what’s happened in the last several years is the previous administration was so focused on climate change and so focused on CO2 that some of those other priorities were left behind," Pruitt said.
"We as Republicans don’t have anything to be apologetic about with respect to the environment. Nothing. We have always believed that you can grow jobs and grow the economy while also ... being a good steward of the environment."
Pruitt hinted at big action this week to start rolling back controversial environmental regulations.
"I think there are some regulations that in the near term need to be rolled back in a very aggressive way," he said. Others may take longer, he noted. In particular, he mentioned the Clean Power Plan, methane standards for the oil and gas industry, and the Waters of the United States rule. Pruitt added that "executive agencies only have the power that Congress has given them."
A former college baseball player, Pruitt repeatedly used a slogan coined by legend Yogi Berra.
"The future ain’t what it used to be," Pruitt told attendees who stood and applauded for him in the closing hours of CPAC.
Still, he said that when he made his first address to staff last week, he "wanted to send a message to the agency that there are some very important things EPA does."
Pruitt said states care about clean air and water and are "partners, not adversaries." The new EPA administrator said he would devote resources to visit governors and work with them. One of his first official acts last week was to sit down with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R).
While Pruitt touted his support for a clean environment, his reported hiring picks suggest he will focus mostly on nixing regulations. To lead his Office of Policy, Pruitt will choose Samantha Dravis, who aided in fights against EPA in senior roles with the Republican Attorneys General Association and its affiliated Rule of Law Defense Fund, according to Axios.
‘We stopped the Clean Power Plan’
In a Q&A after his speech Saturday, a speaker interviewing Pruitt asked for a show of hands from the audience of how many want to eliminate EPA. The crowd cheered.
Asked whether he would support people on social media who have said they want to cut the agency’s budget 90 percent, Pruitt said, "It’s something that’s very difficult to know at this point."
"In the near term, the most important thing we can focus on at the EPA is getting the law right, making sure that the regulations that are posted and adopted by that agency are consistent with the rule of law and consistent with the congressional mandate, and then roll back those that are inconsistent," he said.
The Trump administration has vowed to take apart climate regulations in particular. Executive action to promote fossil fuels and eliminate climate rules is likely this week.
Pruitt said during his Senate confirmation hearing that humans are "in some manner" contributing to climate change.
At CPAC, he said the specific impact is unknown.
"To measure with precision, that is something that is very difficult to do," he said.
He steered the conversation away from whether climate change is real to how policymakers can act.
"If it is happening, what can Congress and what can the administrative state do about it?" he asked. "If the tools aren’t in the toolbox and Congress hasn’t spoken on the issue, agencies can’t just make it up."
Pruitt built his career on lawsuits against the federal government for agency action that he thought was not mandated by law, including EPA’s climate standards for coal plants, the Clean Power Plan.
The Supreme Court has found that federal law requires EPA to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants, but Pruitt says he believes EPA overstepped its authority in asking power companies to shift away from coal.
Pruitt proudly acknowledged suing EPA 14 times as the attorney general of Oklahoma. He said it was "deservedly."
"We not only sued. We won. We stopped the Clean Power Plan. We stopped WOTUS," he said.
The Supreme Court stayed the Clean Power Plan last year, although the courts have not settled whether the climate rule is legal. President Trump and Pruitt plan to do away with the regulation as it is written.
A generational split on climate among conservatives
When Pruitt left the stage, John Jeffrey, a freshman at George Washington University who is gay and considers himself a Republican "centrist," waited to catch the EPA administrator as he exited.
Jeffrey, from Long Island, N.Y., said he was initially apprehensive about Pruitt because he thinks climate change is happening and will only get worse.
"I was worried a lot about him cutting the funding for the EPA and deregulating to the point where the environment was going to be impacted in a negative fashion that was going to be too extreme, and of course I was worried about people in areas who rely on water quality," Jeffrey said, noting lead contamination in the water supply of Flint, Mich.
But Pruitt’s speech largely changed Jeffrey’s mind.
"After hearing what he had to say about the idea of ‘It’s not mutually exclusive, you can be pro-energy and pro-environment,’ it made me a lot more hopeful," he said.
Frank and Sarah Arch, who live in Northern Virginia, brought their 11-year-old daughter, Millie, to CPAC. The three were decked out in Trump gear. Frank proudly lifted his pant cuffs to show off his Trump socks and shoes.
"I think we have a man who will help our EPA start focusing on the No. 1 priorities, which are clean water, clean air," Sarah Arch said.
She said she believes EPA hasn’t regulated air at all, and she noted the agency has fallen behind on some reviews. But Sarah and Frank Arch both said that they don’t want EPA to shut down coal plants to limit pollution. They said that if clean energy makes sense, companies will pursue it on their own.
"They want to put coal out of business. That shouldn’t be the goal. The goal is clean air and clean water," Frank Arch said.
Several CPAC attendees cited their personal experiences with government waste or clean energy in expressing support for Pruitt.
Jeffrey said Medicare rented his friend’s grandmother an electric wheelchair after a surgery when it would have cost the same to buy it for her. The Arches said they considered getting solar panels for their roof so they could have backup power, but they then balked at the cost.
Kathy Ponce, who came to CPAC with a group of girlfriends from Fontana, Calif., said she’s glad Pruitt is in charge and thinks environmentalists have taken things too far.
"They’re monitoring cow farts in California," she said.
Ponce said she thinks climate change is "the biggest hoax there is."
"It’s not a proven science," she said. "There are some articles that, yes, it is a proven science. But you can also pull a lot of studies up that it’s not a proven science. Just follow the weather pattern and the climate history of the past 100 years. It’s called weather. It fluctuates."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.