EPA Aims to Fill Out Bare-Bones Permanent Staff

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By Brian Dabbs

Scott Pruitt is beginning to fill out a leadership staff at the EPA as the agency prepares to advance a likely controversial agenda.

The Environmental Protection Agency is currently operating with a small cadre of officials at the helm, but new administrator Pruitt is angling to bring aboard more top-level personnel soon, EPA staff, a range of former officials and a Republican attorney said.Pruitt has so far tapped at least two officials to fill influential slots that don’t require Senate confirmation. But more appointees that don’t require confirmation, such as the chiefs of the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs and the Office of Public Affairs, will help move agency priorities forward, those former EPA officials said.

The congressional office chief would help navigate the looming budget process, while the latter slot will help shape the agency’s message and image, the officials said.

Filling the Top Rung

Samantha Dravis, a top Republican legal operative, is now head of the Office of Policy. Ryan Jackson, a long-time staffer for Republican stalwart Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), has taken over as the agency’s chief of staff, an EPA spokeswoman told Bloomberg BNA.

Dravis worked for the Republican Attorneys General Association and its affiliated Rule of Law Defense Fund. Pruitt, formerly Oklahoma’s attorney general, is a former chairman of both organizations. Both groups fought the Obama EPA over its controversial Clean Power Plan.

The policy office—where new policy is crafted—often spearheads agency priorities, former EPA officials said. Unlike other offices, it does not have to follow statutory mandates for rulemaking.

“It seems there is a very close and small group of people in the office of the administrator making decisions, which would not be unusual as the cadre of political appointees gets up to critical mass,” Matt Fritz, chief of staff to President Barack Obama’s final EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, told Bloomberg BNA. “My sense, based on past practice, is the White House has identified personnel to fill these slots and will want to run it by the administrator. And I think this pace is probably not much different from previous administrations.”

The transition team, led by White House adviser Don Benton, is also continuing to play a pivotal role in crafting policy, transition team spokesman Doug Ericksen told Bloomberg BNA.

‘Absolutely no Intel’

One current EPA official, a high-level director who requested anonymity, told Bloomberg BNA agency employees “have absolutely no [intelligence] yet” on likely choices for assistant administrator slots that require Senate confirmation. Assistant administrators for all the program offices, such as the Office of Water and the Office of Air and Radiation, require Senate confirmation.

Many of the transition team members, meanwhile, are jockeying for permanent titles in the agency, Ericksen told Bloomberg BNA. News reports have suggested Ericksen is angling to take the reins of the EPA’s Region 10, which covers the Pacific Northwest, but he said no decision has yet been made. Ericksen also continues to serve as a Washington state senator.

Another EPA transition team member, David Schnare, spent more than three decades at the agency and now serves as Energy and Environment Legal Institute general counsel. That organization has been a key opponent of the Massachusetts and New York attorney generals’ investigation into Exxon Mobil Corp. and whether it misled consumers and investors regarding the impact climate change will have on its business.

Congressional Correspondence

Despite the absence of an official in the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs, Jackson is acting as the de facto point person for congressional correspondence, said Inhofe and Dimitri Karakitsos, a recent addition to Holland & Knight LLP in Washington and former senior counsel to Inhofe.

Jackson “has a good reputation and has worked extensively with members of both sides of the aisle, I think the people on the Hill can figure out a way to get to the [EPA] political and the program folks when they need to,” Karakitsos told Bloomberg BNA.

The deputy administrator and general counsel slots are the likely big-ticket items that need Senate confirmation, the former EPA employees said.

Inhofe vowed to help shepherd the nominees through the Senate despite expected Democratic opposition.

White House Influence

The White House has also brought on board some veteran Inhofe operatives. George David Banks and Mike Catanzaro, both former Senate Environment and Public Works Committee aides and Council on Environmental Quality officials under former President George W. Bush, are now special assistants to the president.

Agency nominees are typically selected following consultation between the agency, the White House and Congress. Environment and Public Works processes EPA nominations.

Still, the agency is continuing to move forward with a range of priorities. Following an executive order in late February, the agency launched a review of the EPA rule to clarify regulatory jurisdiction over the domestic waters, known colloquially as Waters of the United States.

The agency then quashed a request to the oil and natural gas industry to provide information on emissions in response to complaints from a set of state attorneys general and governors. In the two-plus weeks since Pruitt took over the agency, the new administrator has also met with a range of interested parties, invariably highlighting his drive to restore “cooperative federalism” at the agency.

The White House has been mulling severe cuts to the agency, according to leaked materials. But Pruitt assured a conference of mayors in recent days he would act to protect brownfields and the Superfund program, as well as water grants and funds.

Amid other controversies just six weeks into Trump’s presidency, Karakitsos said: “As much as there’s been news around decisions in other areas of policy, EPA not being in the news is a good thing.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Dabbs in Washington at bdabbs@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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