By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The man who led President Donald Trump's transition team for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Myron Ebell, told a conservative conference last month that the new administration is moving too slowly to unravel climate change regulations.
In closed-door remarks to members of the conservative Jefferson Institute in Virginia on April 18, a recording of which was obtained by Reuters, Ebell said Trump's administration had made a series of missteps, including delays in appointing key EPA officials, that could hamper efforts to cut red tape for industry.
"This is an impending disaster for the Trump administration," Ebell, a prominent climate change doubter, said in the recording provided to the Center for Media and Democracy and shared with Reuters.
Ebell was chosen by Trump's campaign to lead the EPA's transition until the Jan. 20 inauguration, a choice that had reinforced expectations Trump would follow through on promises to rescind Obama-era green rules and pull the United States out of a global pact to fight climate change.
Ebell had been seen as a candidate for the EPA administrator job, a post that ultimately went to former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.
Ebell no longer works at the agency but remains influential within a faction of the U.S. conservative movement with ties to the Trump administration. His criticism reflects a broader disappointment by some conservatives about Pruitt's focus and commitment to scrapping even more complex Obama-era regulations.
Since taking office, Trump and Pruitt have moved to unwind environmental regulations, including former President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions from electricity generators.
But his administration has frustrated some conservatives by entertaining the idea of remaining in the Paris Climate Agreement, and hesitating to tackle the Obama-era "endangerment finding" that concludes carbon dioxide is a public health threat and underlies many U.S. regulations governing emissions. Lawyers have said challenging that scientific finding could be time consuming and legally complex.
Pruitt has said he does not want the United States to remain in the Paris agreement but he has not yet decided to tackle the endangerment finding. At least three conservative groups have filed petitions asking the EPA to overturn the finding.
"Paris and the endangerment finding are the two big outstanding issues. It’s the first wave of things that are necessary to turn this country around, particularly in the heartland states," Ebell said at the conference.
Ebell cited the slow pace of key EPA appointments, including deputy administrator and various assistant administrators, a lack of experienced personnel at the White House, deep ideological divisions between the president's close advisers, and an "imperfect choice" of EPA administrator, as the main reasons Trump was not acting more aggressively on climate rules.
He said Trump strategists should have allowed his transition team to roll out the full de-regulatory agenda before Trump took office, instead of delaying. "The new president doesn’t have long before inertia sets in," he said.
He also found fault in Trump's choice of Pruitt to run the EPA, saying the former state attorney is a "clever lawyer" but his "political ambition" may distract him from taking-on time-consuming efforts like challenging the endangerment finding.
A spokesman for Pruitt responded to Ebell's assertions, saying Pruitt had been implementing Trump's executive orders and had spearheaded "about two dozen regulatory reform actions" since taking up his position.
Ebell also faulted Trump for choosing advisers with broadly different political perspectives and backgrounds - something he said was triggering paralyzing debate, instead of action.
"He’s got people on different sides and they are all fighting over who gets these jobs and nobody has the clout except the president to say, 'Hey fix this, let’s get this done,'" Ebell said.
In a statement given to Reuters on Saturday, Ebell said he is still concerned about the White House log-jam in nominating people for key EPA posts and the delay in making the Paris decision.
But he said he supports Pruitt as an administrator and is encouraged by his recent actions.
"Pruitt was an excellent choice to head the EPA, and minor disagreements aside, his recent actions have made me even more confident that he will be an outstanding administrator," he said.
A White House official did not respond to a request for comment.
(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Alistair Bell)