Scott Pruitt tries to soothe worries at EPA

WASHINGTON  — Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt tried his best Tuesday to fuse his humbler vision of his new agency with his stated respect for its long-serving, ambitious regulators in his maiden speech to EPA employees.

In a politically difficult pitch to career employees who may sharply disagree with his vision of a more restrained EPA, Pruitt offered something of a homily to the civil service, saluting those with decades of service and proclaiming them symbols of the agency’s value. But Pruitt has promised a drastic overhaul of that agency they serve, a re-do that likely escaped few of the roughly 75 employees gathered in a tall, mahogany meeting room.

“It needs to be tethered to the statute,” Pruitt said of their work. “We need to respect that. We need to follow that. Because when we do, guess what happens? We avoid litigation, we avoid the uncertainty of litigation and we reach better ends and outcomes at the end of day.”

Pruitt knows something about that — as Oklahoma attorney general, he made his name suing the Obama-era EPA as overzealous regulators without due concern for their effect on job creation.

He has vowed to curtail what critics say is the agency’s zest for rulemaking and to offer a more balanced way to promote hiring while still protecting the environment. He did not mention the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act, two of the EPA’s most prominent enforcement tasks, nor the threat of climate change, in his speech.

What he did offer was a flash of deference to the bureaucracy he inherits. Moments after accepting gifts of an EPA lapel pin and a baseball cap, the former minor league baseball team owner celebrated employees who knew their way around the building better than he did. He pledged to listen intently to the agency’s most-tenured workers, and to carry himself with “civility,” which he conceded in this political era was “in short supply.”

Many EPA employees have expressed an uneasiness with Pruitt; the labor union that represents EPA employees even urged their members to call senators and urge them to vote against Pruitt during the confirmation process.

And Pruitt at one point suggested that his image would soften as he escaped the glare of the media.

“I also recognize you don’t know me very well,” Pruitt said, urging suspicion of some of of the coverage that only highlighted some of his resume. “I look forward to sharing the rest of the story with you.”

Working the room with handshakes and back-pats following his speech, Pruitt signaled that he had to get to know some of his own employees better as well: “I haven’t seen you in a while!” he told one of them.