It is unusual for the new leader of a federal agency to have sued the very agency that he now heads, but that’s exactly what happened when President Donald Trump nominated and the U.S. Senate confirmed Scott Pruitt as the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Pruitt, the former attorney general of Oklahoma, has participated in several lawsuits against the EPA, the Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over policies implemented by the Obama administration.
Although the policies at issue directly impacted the fossil fuel industry, the main thrust of the suits involved states’ rights and federal intrusion into regulatory matters that were more properly handled at the state level. Many industry leaders described the actions of regulatory agencies under the Obama administration as “harsh regulatory overreach” and “runaway bureaucracy.”
During Pruitt’s first meeting with EPA staff members, he stressed a cooperative working relationship with state regulators. “For enforcement and other issues, I seek to engender the trust of those at the state level, so those at the state level see us as partners in this important mission we have as an agency and not adversaries,” he said.
“Regulators exist to give certainty to those that they regulate,” Pruitt said. “Those that we regulate ought to know what we expect of them so that they can plan and allocate resources to comply. That’s really the job of the regulator, and the process that we engage in … is very, very important because it sends a message.”
Pruitt’s comments highlighted a significant difference between state and federal regulators. Federal agencies issue complicated rules that are often hundreds of pages long. Enforcement is often rooted in a “gotcha!” approach carrying a threat of large fines. States like Texas, on the other hand, work with those regulated to solve problems. Of course, fines can be implemented but they are not of the magnitude of federal fines – and they are not used as a threat.
“I believe that we as an agency, and we as a nation, can be both pro-energy and jobs, and pro-environment,” Pruitt said in a 12-minute speech to some 100 EPA employees. “We don’t have to choose between the two.”
Environmental activists worked to prevent Pruitt from being confirmed by the Senate. They funded a media campaign in states where they believed they had a chance to convince some Republican senators to oppose Pruitt. However, only one Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, voted against Pruitt’s confirmation. Two Democrats, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joseph Manchin III of West Virginia, voted for Pruitt. The final vote was 52-46.
Alex Mills is president of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers.