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EPA chief Pruitt appeals to ‘civility’ but fails to quell environmentalists’ concerns

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Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s first speech to employees of the EPA at midday on Tuesday did little to assuage the concerns of environmentalists over his ties to the fossil fuel industry.

At the EPA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., Pruitt called for civility and listening in his highly anticipated, tense inaugural address to the staff of an agency that he sued more than a dozen times as Oklahoma attorney general.

“You don’t know me very well. In fact, you don’t know me hardly at all, other than what maybe you read in the newspaper or [have] seen on the news,” he told the crowd. “I look forward to sharing the rest of the story with you as we spend time together. But this is a beginning.”

President Trump’s decision to nominate Pruitt, who has made it clear he has no confidence in mainstream climate science, to lead the EPA immediately incited a backlash from liberals and environmentalists. More than 770 former EPA officials — including scientists, engineers and managers — signed a letter to all the members of the U.S. Senate, urging them to reject Pruitt. Despite near-unanimous opposition by Democrats, he was confirmed last Friday.

On Thursday, an Oklahoma County district judge ordered Pruitt to hand over thousands of emails he exchanged with the energy industry to the Center for Media and Democracy watchdog group by Tuesday — the day of his EPA speech.

Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, speaks to employees of the agency in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, speaks to employees of the agency in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

“Why did we have to rush and have this vote before we had this information?” Tiernan Sittenfeld, the senior vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters, asked Yahoo News. “Everything we know about Scott Pruitt makes abundantly clear that he is unsuitable to be the EPA administrator, and it really begs the question, ‘What was he hiding?’”

In the speech, Pruitt urged EPA staff members to conduct themselves according to values laid out in two books on the American Revolution and its underlying philosophies: “Founding Brothers,” by the American historian Joseph J. Ellis, and “Inventing Freedom,” by a British politician, Daniel Hannan. The values he singled out included civility, rule of law, federalism and listening.

“Civility is something that I believe in very much. We ought to be able to get together and wrestle through some very difficult issues in a civil manner,” he said. “We ought to be able to be thoughtful and exchange ideas.”

Sittenfeld said the speech did not address environmentalists’ concern that Pruitt has always acted to protect the interests of industry. She characterized him as antithetical to the EPA’s mission to protect the environment and human health.

“The speech was pretty much a nothingburger, and given that everything about him is antithetical to the EPA, the onus was really on him to somehow convey if he had different plans that would somehow contradict his record to date,” Sittenfeld told Yahoo News.

As well as suing the EPA at least 14 times, Sittenfeld said, Pruitt has received $350,000 from fossil fuel interests. He also copied letters from oil industry lobbyists and pasted them almost verbatim onto his Oklahoma attorney general letterhead for messages to the Obama administration.

“All of that is extremely concerning and makes clear to us he’s unfit to be the EPA administrator. And nothing about what he said gave us any reason to think otherwise,” she said.

Pruitt’s supporters in the fossil fuel industry, as well as among conservatives opposed to regulations, see him as a corrective to what they consider the Obama administration’s regulatory overreach.

Pruitt quoted Sierra Club founder John Muir toward the end of his speech: “Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to pray in and play in.”

Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, was none too impressed by this reference.

“John Muir is rolling over in his grave at the notion of someone as toxic to the environment as Scott Pruitt taking over the EPA,” Brune said in a statement.

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