EPA's Pruitt urges officials to avoid regulatory 'abuses' in first speech to staff

The new head of the EPA set a decidedly more pro-business tone for the agency Tuesday during his first remarks to rank-and-file employees, promoting a balance between protecting the environment and the economy -- and warning officials to "avoid" regulatory "abuses."

“We as an agency and we as a nation can be both pro-energy and jobs and we can be pro-environment, and we don’t have to choose between the two,” newly confirmed Administrator Scott Pruitt told a group of Environmental Protection Agency employees.

Pruitt’s address follows a heated confirmation process where more than 800 former and current staff members actively campaigned against him. Pruitt, as Oklahoma's attorney general, fought the EPA in court and accused the agency of routinely over-regulating businesses. He vowed that as the agency's new leader, he would work to scale back its authority.

“Regulations ought to make things regular. Regulators exist to give certainty to those that they regulate. Those that we regulate ought to know what’s expected of them, so that they can plan and allocate resources to comply,” he told the crowd.

Tensions with staff, however, could remain high as Pruitt takes over.

In addition to the letter signed by hundreds of employees asking senators to pull their support of Pruitt, more than two-dozen current EPA staff joined a protest set up by the Sierra Club in Chicago against him. The strong internal opposition could mean a standoff down the line between career EPA employees and the man leading them.

Pruitt was narrowly confirmed to head up the agency last week after a lengthy floor debate in the Senate. Democrats blasted him for vowing to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations as well as his past statements challenging the science behind climate change. Republicans countered that Pruitt was the right man to scale back the size and reach of the EPA.

In an exclusive interview with Fox News, Pruitt pushed back on claims that the Trump administration’s EPA agenda is anti-environment. Instead, he noted the agency has strayed from its mission to administer environmental law passed by Congress into an unaccountable federal bureaucracy.

“Often times in rule making regulators have just changed rules midstream,” Pruitt told Fox. “Small businesses and otherwise, they will tell you the greatest impediment they had is regulatory uncertainty.”

Slapping restraints on the EPA could come sooner rather than later.

On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that President Trump could head to EPA headquarters this week to sign a pair of executive orders.

One order would instruct the Department of the Interior to lift a ban on new coal mining leases on federal land and instruct the EPA to rewrite a 2015 regulation that limits greenhouse-gas emissions from existing electric utilities.

The second order reportedly would instruct the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to make significant changes to the Waters of the United States rule which gives the federal government authority over rivers, streams and wetlands. The regulation, issued under the 1972 Clean Water Act, applies to 60 percent of the water bodies in the United States.

As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt was party to lawsuits for both the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States rule. In all, Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times before becoming its administrator.

Pruitt faced additional questions during the confirmation process that extended beyond his history fighting the agency.

On the eve of his confirmation vote, Pruitt was ordered by an Oklahoma judge to hand over thousands of emails between his office and fossil fuel companies like Koch Industries and the National Coal Council to the Center for Media and Democracy, which requested the collection of emails in 2014.

Pruitt and the Oklahoma attorney general’s office are accused of ignoring multiple open records requests. Oklahoma County District Judge Aletia Haynes Timmons said “there was an abject failure to provide prompt and reasonable access to documents requested.”

So far, only 411 of the more than 3,000 emails CMD requested have been handed over. The 411 were turned over last week. The open records request was made two years ago.

Despite being ordered to turn over the emails, Pruitt and his former office can withhold those they deem exempt under the state’s records law.

Fox News' Doug McKelway contributed to this report.