Of all the people Scott Pruitt took with him to Washington and the Environment Protection Agency, Ken Wagner was the one who kept his name out of the news.
He’s also the one who was still working for the EPA right up until this week, when he joined Gov. Kevin Stitt’s administration as the nominee for secretary of energy and environment.
A Tahlequah native who practiced law in Tulsa for two decades, Wagner knows some people may be put off by his association with Pruitt’s brief, controversial tenure as EPA director. The two have known each other since the early 1990s and at one time were investors in Oklahoma City’s minor league baseball team. Pruitt was at one time associated with Wagner’s law firm.
But Wagner says he wasn’t involved in the decisions that hastened Pruitt’s downfall. He says he’s not an ideologue and is committed to one thing: solving problems.
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“I didn’t go to the EPA with a policy agenda,” Wagner said in a phone interview last week. “I’m a people person who believed he could bring people together.”
One reason Wagner avoided the Washington spotlight may have been that he spent so little time there. He visited 48 of the 50 states in his 18 months on the job, missing only South Dakota and Hawaii. During that time he visited tens of thousands of federal and state environmental regulators, learning what they did and what they believed would make the EPA more effective.
His job, said Wagner, was to act as conduit between state and federal officials and senior administration.
“I never really envisioned myself going into public service,” he said. “I never envisioned that I would fall in love with the people and with the work.
“But I felt like I was making a difference.”
Wagner said he cringes at the perception that Oklahoma is “an oil and gas state” uninterested in the environment.
“This state has made significant carbon (emissions) reductions,” he said.
“If we want to attract businesses, we have to assure them we have clean air and clean water.”
Wagner said he is aware of new and long-standing concerns about water quality in eastern Oklahoma, and hopes some of his contacts with the EPA will prove useful there.
Having grown up in Cherokee County, he said, “I know the Illinois River issue. I worked a summer for one of the float trips on the river. My mother worked with (Illinois River activist) Ed Brocksmith at Northeastern State.”
Wagner said he is also eager to work at broadening the energy portion of his portfolio. Renewables such as wind and solar power are critical to economic development in both the near- and long-term, he said.
“A clean environment should be one of Oklahoma’s top selling points for economic development,” Wagner said.
His job, Wagner said, will be to formulate policy that is effective and practical.
“Regulation is necessary ... but regulations need to have a purpose.”