Few Trump administration agency chiefs have moved as decisively to implement an agenda as Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and he's quite clear about what he wants to do.
He calls it a "back to the basics" agenda, removing the government from what he considers extraneous activity — namely, the climate change battle taken up by former President Barack Obama, who he questioned as an "environmental savior."
Asked to define his early legacy, Pruitt, in a wide-ranging interview with the Washington Examiner at EPA headquarters Monday, reached for his coffee mug, leaned his small, stout frame forward in his chair, and embarked on a lengthy denunciation of the Obama administration.
"I've got to say this to you: what is it about the past administration?" Pruitt said. "Everyone looks at the Obama administration as being the environmental savior. Really? He was the environmental savior? He's the gold standard, right? Well, he left us with more Superfund sites than when he came in. He had Gold King [the 2015 mine wastewater spill] and Flint, Michigan [drinking water crisis]. He tried to regulate CO2 twice and flunked twice. Struck out. So what's so great about that record? I don't know."
Pruitt says he wants to emphasize the core mission of the agency charged with protecting the nation's air, water, and public health.
He says he has demonstrated that commitment leading the EPA's response in recent weeks to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, in which the agency has worked to secure some of the nation's most contaminated toxic waste sites under the agency's Superfund program.
But Pruitt is equally sure of what his EPA isn't, and he is focused on countering his predecessor's pursuit of combating climate change.
Pruitt has rolled back regulations aimed at curbing carbon dioxide emissions, which many scientists blame for driving man-made climate change. He has erased climate change considerations from government processes, and he strongly urged President Trump to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris global climate change agreement, a move Trump announced June 1.
That effort has been intensely scrutinized by environmentalists and EPA institutionalists.
Criticism of Pruitt has been amplified after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, partially because he has refused to engage in discussion about the role of climate change in strengthening extreme weather events.
"The cause and effect of these storms, should that really be the priority right now?" Pruitt said to the Washington Examiner, mirroring his comments to other news outlets. "When I've got Superfund sites to worry about, wastewater treatment facilities and we've got drinking water issues and access to fuel issues and power outages. I just think it's insensitive and it's absolute misplaced priorities."
Last weekend, Christine Todd Whitman, former Republican EPA administrator under President George W. Bush, bashed Pruitt in a commentary for the New York Times, blaming him for being overly political and opposing science.
Pruitt, an experienced deregulator and former Republican Oklahoma attorney who sued the EPA multiple times, notices those slights and doesn't dispute their claims.
"Maybe Christine Todd Whitman likes the Obama administration," Pruitt said, after saying he hadn't read her commentary. "Go ask her, I don't know. [Obama] is the gold standard, right?"
Whitman, in an interview with the Washington Examiner Tuesday, stood by her comments about Pruitt.
"He keeps saying he going to do business as usual and get back to the basics of the agency," Whitman said. "First of all, you can't do it with the EPA budget cuts he is talking about. You can't do it the way he is undermining science. And franky, climate change is at the heart of what the agency does because it's about protecting public health and the human environment."
Nothing if not consistent, Pruitt does not say the words "climate change" in describing his legacy.
Pruitt says he is a champion of states' rights, and a defender of the fossil fuel industry, who he worked with closely as Oklahoma's top law enforcement official. Oklahoma is a major oil state, ranking fifth in the U.S. for top producers of crude in 2015.
He argues that businesses can achieve innovation and meet greenhouse gas emissions targets without government telling them to.
"What happens in the environmental space is there are all these labels, environmental skeptic, climate denier, this, that or the other," Pruitt said. "No one is focused on what are we doing to achieve, what action do we need to take, and are we actually showing progress."
To Pruitt, that means emphasizing the EPA's nuts-and-bolts obligations and performing them well.
It means dedicating resources to tackle "tangible" pollution, such as that found at Superfund sites, and regulating hazardous chemicals.
Early in his EPA appointment, Pruitt appointed a task force to study the Superfund program, adopting 42 recommendations and saying he wanted to create a "top 10 list" of the most dangerous sites.
His critics note that Trump's proposed EPA budget for 2018 would cut funding for the Superfund program by about 25 percent and 31 percent of EPA funding overall.
But Pruitt insists he cares about the agency he once loved to hate, and contends a leaner, hyperfocused EPA is a better one.
"You ask, what is the greatest as far as [my] legacy is concerned?" Pruitt said. "It's regulatory certainty, being focused on outcomes, but the greatest thing we can do is reorient thinking so as a country you can be an environmental steward and also about growth. You can be about jobs, and you can be about using the natural resources God has provided us with and also be a an environmental steward."