By Timothy Gardner (Reuters)
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 Democratic President Barack Obama have killed thousands of energy jobs by restricting carbon emissions and limiting areas open to coal mining and oil drilling.
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 toward cleaner air and water and fighting global climate change.
Both Trump and Pruitt have expressed doubts about climate change, and Trump vowed during his 2016 presidential campaign to pull the United States out of a global pact to fight it. The Republican president has promised to slash environmental rules to help the drilling and mining industries, but without hurting air and water quality.
Pruitt sued the agency he now leads more than a dozen times while attorney general of Oklahoma to stop federal rules. He did not mention climate change in his 12-minute speech at the EPA's headquarters in Washington.
He struck a conciliatory tone in the address, saying he would "listen, learn and lead" and that he valued the contributions of career staff.
Trump is expected to sign executive orders aimed at reshaping environmental policy as early as this week. Those orders would lift a ban on coal mining leases on federal lands and ease greenhouse gas emissions curbs on electric utilities, according to a report by the Washington Post.
They would also require changes to Obama's Waters of the United States rule that details which waterways fall under federal protection, the report said.
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 the top prosecutor of the oil- and gas-producing state of Oklahoma.
Democrats had sought to delay Pruitt's confirmation over questions about his ties to the oil industry. Some 800 former EPA staff also signed a letter urging senators to reject him, and about 30 current EPA staff joined a protest set up in Chicago by the Sierra Club environmental group.
In Oklahoma, a state judge ruled last week that Pruitt would have to turn over 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.
Nicole Cantello, a representative of the union that represents EPA workers, said that despite Pruitt's record, she was hoping for the best.
"One would hope that the administrator would learn about what we do and would then not treat as lightly the EPA's mission and accomplishments, and what it is required to do under the statutes," she said.
The American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, said it looked forward to working with Pruitt, the administration and Congress "on policies that will keep energy affordable, create jobs, and strengthen our economy."
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)