Earlier today, I watched new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s Welcome Address to EPA employees (mostly senior career civil servants), streamed live on EPA’s website. After a cordial welcome by Catherine McCabe (Deputy Regional Administrator for Region 2 and long-time career civil servant) who served as Acting EPA Administrator for the transitional period until Pruitt’s Senate confirmation, Pruitt gave a surprisingly earnest set of remarks about the priorities for his leadership of EPA. I say “surprisingly,” because the tone of his remarks stood in stark contrast to the combative and divisive speeches and comments of President Trump and because Pruitt’s words came across (at least to me) much more conciliatory than much of what we have heard from and about Pruitt’s views and positions of EPA in the past. Of course, the substance of the agenda remains to be seen, and the speech did not appreciably step back from key criticisms by Republicans of EPA’s work. A couple of examples included his admonishment against “regulation by litigation,” i.e. the (false, in my view) perception that EPA changes statutory requirements through the litigation process and consent decrees, and “regulation by guidance,” i.e. using guidance documents to promulgate substantive regulatory requirements — both standard but unfair criticisms of EPA’s work.
His substantive speech outlined three themes for his agenda at EPA: 1) process, 2) rule of law, and 3) federalism. In regards to process, his view is that EPA must engage in more dialogue with other stake-holders (presumably industry) and compromise. With respect to the rule of law theme, he emphasized his desire to stick more closely to statutory language. Here is also where he gave his admonishment against “regulation by litigation,” and regulation by guidance.” His last theme, federalism, focused on EPA being more respectful of the states’ role in environmental regulation. (The immediate question that came to my mind is whether he will take this seriously with respect to states, such as California, that want to pursue more protective and progressive environmental policies, including on climate change. If this is just rhetoric, that would be too bad.)
Interestingly enough, he mentioned the Assumption (of war debt) issue that arose during the founding of the United States, based on his reading of Chernow’s Hamilton book. (I just read Chernow’s book as well, so that part of the book is also fresh in my mind.) He also quoted John Muir, though not a passage that I was familiar with. If he is an engaged reader, I genuinely hope that his reading is not only backward-looking in time but also forward-looking, extending to works addressing the big environmental challenges of our times, such as climate change.
Overall, the conciliatory tone of the speech seemed quite appropriate given that he will need the help of all of the career staff in order to accomplish whatever he and the White House have in store. For the sake of the career staff and the institution, that is a positive development. At the same time, I did not get the impression that policy-wise, there will be any effort to step back substantively from the plans for rolling back regulations, especially on climate change regulation and the Waters of the United States regulation (i.e. defining the reach of the EPA’s Clean Water Act jurisdiction), or to fundamentally restructure or drastically cut back EPA. (I have not yet seen the Executive Orders that the White House appears to be ready to release shortly regarding the EPA.) And ultimately, that is what will matter most.