EPA's Pruitt facing challenge from conservatives

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(CNN)Scott Pruitt's first weeks leading the Environmental Protection Agency have been marked by infighting among competing factions, three sources tell CNN, including a group that believes Pruitt may not go far enough to reshape the agency and pare back regulations.

Some conservatives both inside and outside the agency are concerned their dream of reigning in Obama-era EPA regulations and gutting the agency in a more wholesale fashion will not come to fruition.
Several sources outlined three feuding factions within EPA: firm conservatives who want to see a more aggressive pullback of the agency's regulatory footprint; career employees, many of whom are concerned the new administration is hostile to environmental and climate concerns; and Pruitt's inner circle, who are reluctant to go along with some of the most unpopular rollbacks that are controversial even among moderate Republicans.
A source from the more conservative faction described Pruitt as an administrator focused more on optics than reform, causing the source to believe Pruitt is more interested in his post-EPA political career than bringing to fruition the wishes of the most ardent EPA critics.
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    For example, the source said Pruitt has missed a handful of policy briefings, and in some cases decisions have been made by his chief of staff.
    Policy briefings are normal for an incoming administrator, said a fourth source who is a former career employee and in touch with current EPA employees. Pruitt has not requested further briefings, according to the former employee.
    The more conservative sources lament Pruitt's current course.
    "Pruitt shares the ideology that excessive EPA overreach and over regulation does need to be rolled back, but he's resistant to some regulatory action for fear some of the more unpopular actions could harm his future political career," said another source close to the administration who is concerned about Pruitt's first month on the job.
    Asked about the infighting and whether it has had an effect on policy, EPA special adviser to the administrator John Konkus told CNN: "It's just rumor and speculation, and we are not going to comment on that."

    Cuts not deep enough for some

    During discussions about the administration's proposed budget, one source with knowledge of internal EPA activities tells CNN Pruitt pushed back on some of the cuts and expressed concern over some other cuts, upsetting his most conservative critics.
    Still, the Trump administration has proposed steep cuts to the agency's funding. CNN reported the first draft of the President's proposed EPA budget called for a 24% cut. The final budget proposal released March 16 had deeper cuts, slashing EPA's budget by 31%.
    While Pruitt and his camp have had a contentious relationship with firm conservatives who don't believe Pruitt is going far enough to support a more drastic rollback of the agency's regulations, career employees have virtually no relationship with the new administrator, according to multiple sources.

    Rift with career employees

    "The relationship between Pruitt and career employees is defunct," said a conservative source familiar with EPA activities. "He doesn't work with them, and he needs to understand he can't do it alone."
    That sentiment was echoed by the former career employee who is in touch with current career employees as well as a liberal source with knowledge of the inner workings of the agency.
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    "It's, 'This is what's going to happen and that's it,'" the liberal source said. "Normally, there's a lot more engagement. New leadership usually states their overall goals and then try to figure out how to make it happen."
    "He's not showing he knows how to engage with folks, find common ground, and tap into their expertise like I've seen other administrators do," the liberal source continued, adding career staffers have a perception that Pruitt is "disconnected."
    One of the conservative sources said this dynamic would likely hurt Pruitt's ability to have an impact at the agency.
    "Nothing will get done beyond the President's executive orders," the source said, predicting a small regulatory agenda for Pruitt. "This is complex stuff. You have to know it and understand it in order to identify which regulations needs to be killed. Career folks can help with that, if you work with them. But he's not doing that."

    Cause for delay

    The infighting over environmental regulation is spilling out beyond the agency as well.
    Internal fighting was to blame for a weeks-long delay in an executive order that the president is now poised to sign this week, the sources said.
    The order, a step towards dismantling President Barack Obama's environmental and climate change legacy, will roll back the Clean Power Plan. Trump will sign the order on Tuesday, Pruitt said in an interview on ABC News this weekend. The Obama administration saw the measure way to slow greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, while Pruitt and conservatives see it as part Obama's job killing "anti-fossil fuel strategy."
    One of the sources told CNN internal fighting -- a "huge" debate over what would be included in the order -- is the reason the order was not released earlier.
    "There are two to three hour discussions on this," this source, who is familiar with the discussions, said.
    The White House last week disputed there was a delay, saying nothing had been announced and therefore couldn't be delayed.
    One of the largest points of contention was whether to include the Paris agreement on climate change as part of the executive order.
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    There is also debate on whether to include instructions to revise the EPA's endangerment finding, a cornerstone decision allowing the agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from coal power plants. In 2009, the EPA ruled that based on scientific and technical data, greenhouse gases "in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations."
    Some of the President's team wants a revision of the finding, meaning a re-examination of the science used to determine that greenhouse gases are harmful to human health. That could have a sweeping effect since the endangerment findings are the underpinnings of many regulations.
    Pruitt pushed back against including it in the executive order, a source familiar with the discussions said.
    It's a surprising stance for Pruitt who as Oklahoma's Attorney General in 2012 unsuccessfully worked with 14 states to unravel EPA's endangerment finding.
    Pruitt's position thus far has dismayed the more conservative faction.
    "It isn't that he now likes the finding. It is that he has been advised that it is a third rail, and should leave it alone and let the next guy clean up the mess he left behind," a conservative source said.