For an afternoon last week, I found myself spending unexpected time with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. Environmental news is my business, and before meeting Pruitt, I had a well-founded sense of the guy. Seriously, his news coverage makes him appear to be walking time bomb, sure to sink from view any day.

Given the extreme bumbling of seemingly obvious ethics, I expected, well, a bumbler. Given his severe hostility toward establishing basic relationships with media you expect for any other public official, I expected someone who could not communicate. Given the fact that a Republican leader had recently told me that they expected him to be in jail within two years, surely there was a grave lack of understanding of law. He’s the subject of 17 ongoing investigations.

What I Discovered

Here’s the bad news if you care about environmental safeguards: Pruitt is not a bumbler. He is a skilled communicator. He appears to have a firm grip on the laws he’s working to undo.

Scott Pruitt is one of the most effective cabinet members in advancing his boss’s agenda. Despite near complete meltdown in how he handles his affairs as a public official, I expect him to ride through the turbulence, though I assume it will eventually catch up to him. In the meantime, removing the yoke of the EPA off of businesses? That’s super popular with a lot of people.

Pruitt was in Idaho to transfer Clean Water Act permitting from the EPA to the state. Idaho is one of a tiny list of states that don’t already have "primacy" for water permits. The process of moving this work to Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality has been years in the making and is not a surprise. This transfer is also not troubling to ICL. DEQ has to follow the same laws that the EPA does, and having Idaho do the permitting may lead to better prioritization and deeper and more responsive staffing. ICL already investigates and comments on every proposed Idaho water permit in the state of Idaho. We’ve been at the table for years. We have every intention of remaining there.

The press conference for the policy handoff was ho-hum – other than the rare mashup of media in the governor’s office, the loud protest chanting in the hallway, and the fact that this cabinet member representing environmental protection for all Americans pivoted out the door as soon as his task was complete, ignoring every question from the media.

How I Came to Meet Pruitt

Days before the visit, I received an email from the head of Region 10 EPA in Seattle, on behalf of Pruitt, inviting me to the signing ceremony and then afterward, to a "roundtable discussion hosted by the governor’s office." This later event proved the most interesting in several respects.

Here, with the door closed and attendees limited, I really saw Pruitt in action. Right away, I was reminded that, however much I may oppose the work of a top-tier official, once you’re playing at that level, rarely are these players not above average in some respects. For good or ill, it’s the varsity team. As a political operative of sorts myself, I study others as they apply the craft, especially opponents. Before we assembled around the table, Pruitt confidently worked the room, shaking hands and making introductions. Gov. Butch Otter, quite characteristically, gave a loud ranch whistle to get folks to sit down and opened with some short remarks. Pruitt followed.

As Pruitt spoke, three seats to my right, I scanned the room. I was the only representative of a conservation group allowed to penetrate the security screen. Once in, I knew most of those in the room. (Idaho is still a small town.) Considering the quickly scheduled notice, the room held a "who’s who" of the "regulated community," the businesses and communities who need to regularly navigate EPA rules and regulations, plus a set of state officials.

After Pruitt finished, Otter opened it up. Looking across the table, he offered the floor to me. I described ICL, ICL’s work and the many working relationships we have with businesses and communities, but I clearly voiced concern that rollbacks could set Idaho’s environment and economy back. I had no expectation of changing anything, nor was I going to waste time or create ill will by voicing too much edge where it would do no good. (Many of you have heard my story about an opponent once saying to me, "I now know you can make a point. I’ll be watching to see if you learn how to make a difference." It was a life lesson.)

Pruitt’s Message

That said, ICL has just recently sued the EPA – Pruitt by name – twice. There will certainly be more suits. The most basic staffing should have informed him of this in advance. But Pruitt, now speaking to the room, repeating my name with a big smile and inclusive language, went on about how protecting the environment is a great challenge but a great honor. And of course, it’s going great. Responding to me and to the next six questions/commenters, he calmly and enthusiastically spoke of about the progress our nation has made and continues to make. He spoke of changes EPA is making to various processes and speeding up permitting, and just about everyone in the room probably thought this was all terrific news. The rest of the room was, after all, Idaho interests, certainly not supportive of the Obama administration, and for the party now in power, they are known as "the base."

It was a "hit the softball" kind of audience, and Pruitt was popping them up easily. Pruitt rattled off statistic after statistic. He was completely at ease speaking off the cuff with no notes or obvious staff support. He was persuasive (if you’re hearing what you want to hear, as was most of the room).

Because no media was there, I can report that nothing happened of particular concern. It was all political theater: A leading federal official comes to Idaho, brings "leaders" together, clearly listens, and tells most everyone what they want to hear. Take a bow and head for the airport. Repeat as needed. Predictably boring and quite professional. That was a takeaway for me. Because of all the incredibly horrible press, I was expecting someone other than who I saw. Again, I expected a bumbler and Scott Pruitt is certainly not that (well, at least when it comes to environmental rollbacks). In short, he’s a pro, and environmental policy is in for a very rough ride.

In the Room

I walked back to the office and debriefed with ICL program staff, who, as I had just been, are often the only conservationists in the room. We are in the room for difficult rulemakings, legislative meetings and meetings with agencies. We are in the courts and on the phone with editorial writers. Not uncommonly, we are scolded by policymakers because we make their jobs harder. It can be wildly frustrating (and often fun). This is the work we do, and as any reading of ICL annual reports demonstrates, we make quite a bit of progress. A colleague has a favorite phrase: "Style matters." The way that ICL works – steadily, professionally, and building on hard-earned credibility and relationships, often below the radar – has a major impact protecting Idaho’s environment.

There was nothing gained by being in this room, I suspect, except that after Pruitt left Idaho, ICL will still be working, every day, with many of the people in that room. We are not going away, and everyone knows that. We get to be there because of the support of thousands of Idahoans. It’s those thousands of Idahoans who have our back. We are never actually alone in those rooms, and everyone else knows that, too.