Saturday 25 February 2017 16.47 EST
Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has vowed to roll back flagship regulations that tackle climate change and water pollution, telling a conservative audience in Maryland they would be “justified” in believing the environmental regulator should be completely disbanded.
The Trump appointee signalled that the president is set to start the work of dismantling climate and water rules as early as next week. Pruitt said the administration will “deal” with the Clean Power Plan, Barack Obama’s centrepiece policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the Waters of the United States rule, which gives the EPA wider latitude to reduce pollution of waterways.
Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Pruitt said the EPA under Obama’s administration caused “regulatory uncertainty” for businesses and trampled on the rights of states and Congress. He promised to “restore federalism” by giving states more of a say in air and water protection and ensure that “regulations are reined in”.
“The agency has been used by the previous administration in ways we couldn’t imagine eight years ago,” he said.
“People across the country look at the EPA at the way they look at [the Internal Revenue Service]. We want to change that. There are a lot of changes that need to take place at my agency to restore the rule of law and federalism.
“This president, who is leading with great decisiveness, great action, is saying we will fix that. I’m grateful we’ve got that kind of leader in the White House. We should celebrate that.”
Pruitt demurred when asked if the EPA should be abolished, citing the “very important work” it does in water and air pollution that crosses state lines. But he said critics were “justified” in wanting the regulator to be disbanded. Trump has called the EPA a “disgrace” and vowed to reduce the agency to “tidbits”.
Pruitt sued the EPA over its pollution regulations 14 times while he was attorney general of Oklahoma, often in concert with oil and gas interests. Last week, emails from Pruitt’s tenure in the state government were released, showing an extremely close relationship between his office and fossil fuel companies.
Two cases fought by Pruitt led to courts freezing the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the US rule. Trump is expected to sign executive orders to wipe out these regulations but the process will likely take several years with legal challenges expected.
It is also uncertain what the EPA’s replacement plan to combat climate change will be. The supreme court ruled in 2007 that carbon dioxide can be regulated under the Clean Air Act, with the EPA determining in 2009 that CO2 endangers human health. Should Pruitt manage to get rid of the Clean Power Plan, he will be obligated to replace it with a new policy in relation to greenhouse gases.
Pruitt said the EPA “can’t just make it up” when it decides rules to address climate change, adding that it is “hard to measure with precision” the impact of human activity on the changing climate. In fact, an abundance of research points to the burning of fossil fuels as the key driver of warming temperatures.
The EPA has estimated that the Clean Power Plan would cut carbon pollution by a third by 2030 compared to 2005 levels, as well as save more than 6,000 lives a year through improved air quality. The Waters of the US rule was defined by the Obama administration to cover headwaters and tributaries that lead into major waterways, thereby protecting the drinking water of around 117 million Americans.
EPA staff are bracing for cuts to employee numbers as well as oversight. At CPACPruitt would not commit to a number of job losses but said he would be reviewing at the budget and structure of the agency.
“We as Republicans have nothing to be apologetic about when it comes to the environment,” Pruitt said. “Nothing. We can grow jobs, grow the economy while being good stewards of the environment. We can do both.”
CPAC featured anti-EPA rhetoric before Pruitt’s appearance. Steve Milloy, a lawyer who was part of Trump’s landing team for the agency, said the EPA should not conduct science and then base regulations upon the findings.
“It’s going to be a real war with environmentalists, no question about that,” Milloy said of the coming four years. “There’s going to be a lot of litigation. But we’re going to move EPA in the right direction.”
Environmentalists, Democrats and some EPA staff staunchly opposed the appointment of Pruitt. Hundreds of former EPA staff put their name to a letter calling for him to be rejected by the Senate with one, former regional administrator Judith Enck, calling on her former colleagues to “fight back internally” against Pruitt and Trump’s agenda.
Naomi Ages, a Greenpeace climate campaigner, said: “Trump will never know what it feels like to worry about the water his family is drinking, to wonder if his house will survive the next superstorm, or if his child will face illegal deportation.
“He is clearly and directly endangering the health and safety of millions of people in order to line the pockets of corporate executives.”