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By Brian Dabbs
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is reserving approval authority for all agency actions typically overseen by regions and program offices through the beginning of April, according to a memo obtained by Bloomberg BNA.
The memo authored by transition team member David Schnare, instructs agency employees to send proposed decisions or final actions to Pruitt for review.
All such agency activity that “would limit the flexibility of the states, limit energy resource use, impose significant costs on industry or commerce, or otherwise likely result in significant public attention on the proposed decisions or final agency actions” must now be screened by Pruitt’s office, according to the March 2 memo, which says the policy will remain in place for 30 days.
Pruitt has called for a fundamental overhaul of the Environmental Protection Agency, vowing to restore cooperation with states and lift regulatory burdens on industry. EPA spokespeople didn’t respond to multiple Bloomberg BNA requests for comment and requests to authenticate the memo.
The memo was sent to regional and lower-level office staff. Agency chief of staff Ryan Jackson, acting deputy administrator Mike Flynn and Samantha Dravis, chief of the agency’s policy office, are included as well.
The top-level direction applies to basic permitting actions, a high-ranking office director at EPA who requested anonymity told Bloomberg BNA. That would traditionally include approvals of state water-quality standards, some Superfund remedies and a wide range of other actions.
“They’re not regulations, but they’re agency actions that do have import,” the EPA office director said. “I’ve never seen a memo like this before.” The employee added that the memo likely reflects a lack of trust between Pruitt and career employees.
The memo’s criteria covers “very, very broad” agency jurisdiction, the employee said. But the precise coverage is so far unclear.
Another high-level EPA official who requested anonymity said the memo stems from an episode in which Pruitt became apprised of certain decisions on delegated actions that he disagreed with. The official wouldn’t reveal the details of those actions, but said the episode reflects Pruitt’s lack of knowledge of agency workings.
“He was completely ignorant of the fact that there were over 500 delegations,” the official told Bloomberg BNA, who added that the memo incited internal opposition. “It created a deep level of anger or simple animosity amongst the career executives who have been handling routine agency actions for a long time.”
Following a prolonged nomination fight, Pruitt has only begun to fill out his leadership ranks as he moves into his fourth week in office.
Schnare, in the memo, justified the comprehensive review “because the presidentially-appointed assistant administrators and regional administrators have yet to assume their duties.” Assistant administrators need Senate approval but regional administrators do not.
Former EPA team officials said they didn’t recall past administrators issuing that type of request. But the lack of top-level personnel, coupled with few signs that nominations are imminent, may in fact rationalize such review, Rick Otis, who headed President George W. Bush’s transition at EPA, told Bloomberg BNA.
“If they’re not familiar with agency action, and not sure about permitting or rulemaking even, they’re probably trying to conform themselves,” Otis said, referring to Pruitt’s inner circle. “And it might be somewhat that they are cynically distrustful and want to ensure the agency is functioning as they want.”
Many observers highlight the lack of EPA experience in Pruitt’s transition team and initial appointees. Schnare’s former EPA career as an agency attorney sets him apart from most other transition members.
Dravis, for instance, comes to EPA following stints at the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) and its affiliated Rule of Law Defense Fund. Prior to joining those organizations, Dravis specialized in Federal Election Commission and Internal Revenue Service compliance law, according to RAGA.
Schnare is widely viewed as an influential figure at EPA, but agency spokespeople didn’t respond to a request for confirmation of his current title.
Bob Sussman, the co-chair of former President Barack Obama’s EPA transition team, said the request indicates a keen sense of the agency. “It’s important to let people know the administrator is the decision-maker and his perspective is important,” Sussman told Bloomberg BNA.
The high-level EPA official also said the spirit of the memo may fit a traditional mold.
“Despite the ignorance of Pruitt with regard to how this agency works, and the fact that people he is placing confidence in haven’t a clue either about how it operates, its not unusual that a new administrator would want to get a handle on agency workings,” the official said.
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