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By Brian Dabbs
The White House is collaborating with newly minted EPA administrator Scott Pruitt to vet candidates for the agency’s leadership team, but the speed of confirmations is largely up to a Senate already dogged by intransigence, a top White House adviser said Feb. 21.
“Those decisions are made by the secretary, and in this case the administrator, and the president, and they make them jointly from what I’ve seen,” Don Benton, a senior White House adviser on the agency, told reporters after Pruitt’s inaugural speech to EPA staff.
“The president understands that when he puts an executive in charge of something they need to be able to bring the people in that they need to get the job done,” Benton, a Republican state senator from Washington, said.
Pruitt took the reins of the Environmental Protection Agency Feb. 17 following a contentious and drawn-out confirmation process. Acting deputies and assistant administrators currently fill the ranks of the highest levels of the agency, led by Acting Deputy EPA Administrator Mike Flynn. Democrats in the Senate are continuing to stall nominees amid an unprecedented pushback on the newly elected president’s Cabinet.
President Donald Trump reportedly rejected Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s pick for deputy, Elliott Abrams, in recent days, but Benton dismissed the prospect of a leadership selection row at the EPA.
“I don’t expect we’ll have any trouble,” he told reporters. “We’re ready to go. Scott has in mind the people that he needs to help him, and we’ve already begun to process some of those names through the White House.”
Various news accounts have mentioned Donald van der Vaart, former secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, and Andrew Wheeler, a former aide to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), as potential Pruitt deputies.
A spokesman for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the panel tasked with processing the EPA staff, said he couldn’t immediately respond to a Bloomberg BNA request for comment. Lisa Jackson, the first EPA administrator under former President Barack Obama, didn’t land a Senate-confirmed deputy administrator, Bob Perciasepe, until December of the president’s first year in office.
The Senate confirmed Jackson three days after Obama’s inauguration in 2009 while Pruitt has had to wait a month.
Benton lauded the Pruitt speech, saying the new administrator rightly stressed the need to balance environmental safeguards and industry growth. Pruitt focused on cooperative federalism and reining in EPA overreach.
“Process matters, and we should respect that and focus upon that, and try to avoid, not try to avoid but do avoid, abuses that occur sometimes,” Pruitt told a crowd of several dozen EPA employees. “I believe we as an agency and we as a nation can be both pro-energy and jobs and pro-environment, that we don’t have to choose between the two.”
As attorney general for Oklahoma, Pruitt sued the EPA over a range of regulations, including challenges to the Clean Water Rule, Clean Power Plan, ozone air quality standards, mercury standards for power plants and methane limits for the oil and natural gas industry.
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