The head of the Environmental Protection Agency defended his meetings with energy companies, chemical manufacturers, automakers and other industry groups, arguing that they were “stakeholders” not “polluters.”
In an exclusive interview with TIME on Oct. 18, former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt argued that the recent criticism of his schedule, which showed he met with environmental groups less than 1% of the time, was inaccurate.
“I don’t spend any time with polluters. I prosecute polluters,” says Pruitt. “What I’m spending time with are stakeholders who care about outcomes. I think it’s a wrong premise. It’s Washington D.C.-think to look at folks across the country—from states to citizens to farmers and ranchers, industry in general—and say they are evil or wrong and we’re not going to partner with them.”
Environmental groups have linked Pruitt’s frequent meetings with industry to the many regulatory steps he has taken since entering office that benefit corporations. Pruitt has overturned a proposed ban on a pesticide thought to harm human development. He has launched a revaluation of vehicle emissions standards sought by automakers. And, earlier this month, he formally initiated the roll back of the Clean Power Plan, which energy companies—particularly the coal industry—have fought tooth and nail since President Obama finalized the plan in 2015.
“There is a reason Scott Pruitt tried so hard to keep his schedule secret,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune in a statement. “It is an indictment of his total failure to do the job he was sworn to do.”
Pruitt told TIME that partnering with businesses is an effective way to protect the environment. “There aren’t enough people that this agency can hire to stand on every corner in this country to look over the shoulder of all these companies and say do this or do that,” he says.
He also questioned the common conception of what it means to be an environmentalist, arguing that the term also applies to farmers and ranchers who live off the land. “Those farmers and ranchers in Iowa or North Dakota, are they less of a conservationist or environmentalist because they’re not part of some association?” Pruitt asked. “I mean they are our first environmentalists. Their greatest asset is their land.”