WASHINGTON — Days after the Senate confirmed him as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference and was asked about addressing a group that probably wanted to eliminate his agency.
"I think it's justified," he responded, to cheers. "I think people across the country look at the EPA the way they look at the IRS."
In the days since, Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who built a career out of suing the agency he now leads, has moved to stock the top offices of the agency with like-minded conservatives — many of them skeptics of climate change and all of them intent on rolling back environmental regulations that they see as overly intrusive and harmful to business.
Pruitt has drawn heavily from the staff of his friend and fellow Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, long known as Congress' most prominent skeptic of climate science. A former Inhofe chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, will be Pruitt's chief of staff. Another former Inhofe staff member, Byron Brown, will serve as Jackson's deputy. Andrew Wheeler, a fossil fuel lobbyist and a former Inhofe chief of staff, is a finalist to be Pruitt's deputy, although he requires confirmation to the position by the Senate.
To friends and critics, Pruitt seems intent on building an EPA leadership that is fundamentally at odds with the career officials, scientists and employees who carry out the agency's missions. That might be a recipe for strife and gridlock at the federal agency tasked with keeping safe the nation's clean air and water while safeguarding the planet's future.
"He's the most different kind of EPA administrator that's ever been," said Steve J. Milloy, a member of the EPA transition team who runs the website JunkScience.com, which aims to debunk climate change. "He's not coming in thinking EPA is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Quite the opposite."
Gina McCarthy, who headed the EPA under former President Barack Obama, said she too saw Pruitt as unique. "It's fine to have differing opinions on how to meet the mission of the agency. Many Republican administrators have had that," she said. "But here, for the first time, I see someone who has no commitment to the mission of the agency."
A pair of Trump campaigners from Washington state are also heading into senior positions at the EPA. Don Benton, a former state senator in Washington who headed President Donald Trump's state campaign, will stay on as the agency's senior liaison with the White House. Douglas Ericksen, a current Washington state senator, is being considered as the regional administrator of the EPA's Pacific Northwest office.
As a state senator, Ericksen has been active in opposing efforts to pass a state-level climate change law taxing carbon pollution. Last month, he invited Tony Heller, a climate denialist who blogs under the pseudonym Steven Goddard, to address a Washington state Senate committee on the costs of climate change policy. Heller's blog says, "Global warming is the biggest fraud in science history."
"I think the reason both of these guys are being considered for this stuff is they were the only prominent elected officials in the state of Washington that were early supporters and organizers for Trump," said Todd Donovan, a political scientist at Western Washington University. "No other state legislators were putting their necks out for Trump."
Another transition official under consideration by Pruitt for a permanent position is David Kreutzer, a senior research fellow in energy economics and climate change at the conservative Heritage Foundation who has publicly praised the benefits of increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That view stands in opposition to the broad scientific consensus that increased carbon dioxide traps heat and contributes to the dangerous warming of the planet.
The agency's policy agenda is coming into focus: Last week, Trump signed an executive order directing Pruitt to begin the legal process of dismantling a major Obama-era regulation aimed at increasing the federal government's authority over rivers, streams and wetlands in order to prevent water pollution. Also last week, Pruitt ordered the agency to walk back a program on collecting data on methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas, from oil and gas wells.
This week, Trump is expected to sign an executive order directing Pruitt to begin the legal process of unwinding Obama's EPA regulations aimed at curbing planet-warming pollution from coal-fired power plants, and Pruitt is expected to announce plans to begin to weaken Obama-era rules mandating higher fuel economy standards.
A draft White House budget blueprint proposes to slash the EPA budget by about 24 percent, or $2 billion from its current level of $8.1 billion, and cut employee numbers by about 20 percent from its current staff of about 15,000.
Agency employees say morale has already been damaged. After working for years to draft climate change regulations under the Obama administration, many of those same career scientists and lawyers will be ordered to go back and undo them.
McCarthy, who oversaw the writing and execution of those major water and climate change regulations, said it would be difficult and time-consuming to reverse them, especially if Trump succeeds in greatly downsizing the agency.
"If you want to do these executive orders that require a whole rewrite of the rule, you have to get that right, legally," she said. "It took years to do those rules. To now ask for those things to be undone with less staff and low morale — how are they going to do it?"
There is one area in which Pruitt has vowed to continue the traditional work of the EPA: a long-standing program for sending funds to states to clean up "brownfields" — former industrial sites that have been contaminated by pollution. Although Trump's budget blueprint would slash funds for that program, Pruitt pledged to a gathering of mayors in Washington last week that he would fight to save the program.
"With the White House and Congress, I am communicating a message about brownfields," he told mayors. "I want to hear from you about successes and communicate them."
J. Christian Bollwage, the Democratic mayor of Elizabeth, N.J., a city that has been plagued with industrial pollution, said he was heartened to hear the pledge.
"I've never heard such a vociferous defense of providing brownfields grants," he said. "He was explicit. He said he was going to take the defense of brownfields to the White House. I was impressed and hopeful."
But, Bollwage added, "Coming from New Jersey, climate change is also a big issue. And I'm still worried about an administration that seems to think climate change is a hoax."
Concern over Pruitt's stewardship may not be long-lived. There is speculation that the EPA chief already has his eyes on a different office.
Inhofe, 82, will complete his current Senate term in 2020. While he declined to speak of his retirement plans, Inhofe said of Pruitt, "I think he'd make a great senator."