Democracy Dies in Darkness

Energy and Environment

Thousands of emails detail EPA head’s close ties to fossil fuel industry

By Brady Dennis, Steven Mufson

February 22, 2017 at 2:55 PM

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In an address to staff, new Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt called for "civility". (Reuters)

In his previous role as Oklahoma's attorney general, the Environmental Protection Agency's new administrator regularly huddled with fossil fuel firms and electric utilities about how to combat federal environmental regulations and spoke to conservative political groups about what they called government "overreach," according to thousands of pages of emails made public Wednesday.

"The newly released emails reveal a close and friendly relationship between Scott Pruitt's office and the fossil fuel industry, with frequent meetings, calls, dinners and other events," said Nick Surgey, research director for the Center for Media and Democracy, which has sued to compel the release of the emails.

The emails highlight an often-chummy relationship between Pruitt's office and Devon Energy, a major oil and gas exploration and production company based in Oklahoma City. The correspondence makes clear that top officials at the company met often with Pruitt or people who worked for him. Devon representatives also helped draft — and redraft — letters for Pruitt to sign and send to federal officials in an effort to stave off new regulations.

"Any suggestions?" a deputy solicitor general in Pruitt's office wrote to a Devon executive in early May 2013, including a draft of a letter the office was planning to send to the EPA regarding proposed regulations of methane emissions.

"Here you go," the executive, Bill Whitsitt replied. "Please note that you could use just the red changes, or both red and blue (the latter being some further improvements from one of our experts) or none."

"I sent the letter today," the deputy solicitor general wrote the following day. "Thanks for all your help on this."

The emails show that Pruitt and his office were in touch with a network of conservative groups, many of which in the past have received backing from billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, the libertarian owners of Koch Industries, a major oil company. The documents detail not only how Pruitt's office at times coordinated with industry officials to fight unwanted regulations from Washington, but also how he was a highly sought-after speaker at conferences and other gatherings for groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, which works with corporate interests and state legislators to shape key pieces of legislation.

In one example, Pruitt was a speaker at an ALEC conference on May 3, 2013, in Oklahoma City. He was part of a panel called, "Embracing American Energy Opportunities: From Wellheads to Pipelines." The event also featured a reception at the Petroleum Club and a luncheon sponsored by Koch Industries.

The Oklahoma attorney general's office handed over the batch of emails — nearly 7,000 pages in all — this week in order to meet a deadline set by a judge who ordered the documents' release following more than two years of effort by CMD, a liberal watchdog organization. The group had sued to compel the state to release the documents under public records laws. (The emails can be viewed here.)

Related: [Pruitt to EPA employees: ‘We don’t have to choose’ between jobs and the environment]

Though the emails show Pruitt's ties with a wide range of fossil fuel interests and conservative political groups, they show a particularly friendly working relationship with officials Devon. Much of the correspondence revolves around arranging speaking engagements, obtaining contact information for people at the federal Office of Management and Budget and coordinating letter-writing efforts.

At one point, Pruitt's then-chief of staff, Melissa Houston, wrote in a Jan. 9, 2013, email to Whitsitt, Devon's vice president for public affairs: "You are so amazingly helpful!!! Thank you so much!!!"

In another email chain on March 21, 2013, Whitsitt wrote to Pruitt's office offering a draft of a letter that state attorneys general might sign and send to the then-acting EPA administrator regarding limits on methane emissions. Devon, which has substantial shale gas and shale oil drilling operations, would have been affected by the rule.

"Attached is a potential first-cut draft of a letter a (bipartisan if possible?) group of AGs might send to the acting EPA administrator and some others in the Administration in response to the NE states' notice of intent to sue for more E&P; emission regulation," Whitsitt wrote. "It would be a shot across the bow, warning EPA not to not go down a negotiated-rulemaking or wink-at-a sue-and-settle tee-up process."

The company vice president gave strategic advice, too. "If sent, I'd suggest that it be made public, at least to the Hill and to policy community publications," he wrote. "It seems to me this would also be a logical outgrowth of the fossil energy AGs meeting and could be powerful with a number of signers. It is also the kind of thing that in the future could be run through the clearinghouse we discussed. Please let me know what you and General Pruitt think, or if we can help further."

That same month, Whitsitt also offered a draft of a letter for Pruitt to sign about the federal Bureau of Land Management's revised proposal of a rule on hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique that has helped U.S. companies like Devon sharply expand output and profits. Following up on his conversations with Pruitt, Whitsitt suggested a meeting "or perhaps more efficient, a conference call" with OMB officials.

"The attached draft letter (or something like it that Scott if comfortable talking from and sending to the acting director to whom the letter is addressed) could be the basis for the meeting or call," he wrote.

Pruitt's chief of staff replied: "Thanks Bill — we will take a look and start working on a draft."

In a Nov. 8, 2013, email, Houston asked the Devon VP of public and government affairs, Allen Wright, to take her, her sons and her father to see Devon Tower, a skyscraper in downtown Oklahoma City. Wright asked a colleague to escort her and her family to "50" — apparently the top of the 50-story tower.

In another case, Pruitt received a thankful email from Stuart Solomon, the president and chief operating officer of the Public Service Company of Oklahoma, a utility that's part of the larger power company American Electric Power. The email came as the company hailed a 2014 decision by the EPA to back off of an attempt to impose a federal plan on Oklahoma for its compliance with the agency's regional haze rule, and instead accept a plan offered by the state. Pruitt had sued the EPA over its federal plan – which, according to a press release from Solomon's company, "would have cost the utility and its customers about $650 million more in additional near-term investments than the state plan."

"Scott, I wanted to tell you personally how much I appreciate your efforts to pave the way for a state solution to meeting the RHR challenge," said Solomon. "Your lawsuit against EPA, and your encouragement of our efforts to settle this issue in a way that benefits the state, were instrumental in giving us the time and the opportunity to develop a revised state plan."

Pruitt's close ties to Devon Energy were first highlighted in 2014 by the New York Times, which reported that a letter ostensibly written by the attorney general alleging that the EPA overestimated air pollution from natural gas drilling was actually written by the company's attorneys. "That's actually called representative government in my view of the world," Pruitt later said of the letter.

The emails' release comes just days after Pruitt was confirmed as the EPA's new leader. Senate Democrats and environmental groups made a last-minute push to delay his confirmation vote last week, contending that lawmakers — and the public — ought to be able to review his correspondence with industry officials before putting him in charge of safeguarding the nation's environment. Republicans forged ahead anyway, and Pruitt was confirmed by a 52-to-46 vote.

In a statement Tuesday, the Oklahoma attorney general's office said it "went above and beyond what is required under the Open Records Act and produced thousands of additional documents that, but for the Court's order, would typically be considered records" outside the scope of the act. "This broad disclosure should provide affirmation that, despite politically motivated allegations, the Office of the Attorney General remains fully committed to the letter and spirit of the Open Records Act," spokesman Lincoln Ferguson said.

Pruitt's office at EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Related: [Scott Pruitt, longtime adversary of EPA, confirmed to lead the agency]

In an email, Devon Energy spokesman John Porretto said the company’s engagement with Pruitt during his time as attorney general was “consistent — and proportionate — with our commitment to engage in conversations with policymakers on a broad range of matters that promote jobs, economic growth and a robust domestic energy sector.” He added: “We have a clear obligation to our shareholders and others to be involved in these discussions related to job growth, economic growth and domestic energy…. It would be indefensible for us to not be engaged in these important issues.”

Environmental groups on Wednesday were quick to criticize Pruitt, arguing that the emails showed once again his penchant for putting the interests of industry over the health of ordinary citizens.

"This is Scott Pruitt's mission statement: attack environmental safeguards, protect industrial polluters and let the public pay the price," Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. "These emails tell us that he's in league with the very industries we've now entrusted him to police. He so deeply imbedded himself with energy companies that they described Pruitt and his allies as 'fossil energy AGs,' a badge of dishonor for a public guardian if ever there were one."

The Oklahoma attorney general's office withheld some documents as exempted or privileged and has asked Judge Aletia Haynes Timmons to review whether they should be released, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. Timmons also ordered Pruitt's former office to hand over records related to five outstanding records requests by early next week.

After unsuccessfully seeking the release of Pruitt's correspondence with fossil-fuel representatives under public records laws, the center filed suit over his refusal to turn over the documents and requested the expedited hearing that led to Timmons's order on Thursday. In her ruling, the judge said there had been "an abject failure to provide prompt and reasonable access to documents requested."

Pruitt sued the EPA more than a dozen times during the Obama administration, challenging the agency's authority to regulate toxic mercury pollution, smog, carbon emissions from power plants and the quality of wetlands and other waters. During his tenure in Oklahoma, he dismantled a specialized environmental protection unit that had existed under his Democratic predecessor and established a "federalism unit" to combat what he called "unwarranted regulation and systematic overreach" by Washington.

These moves earned him widespread opposition from environmental activists but praise from fellow Republicans and industry representatives, who saw him as a friend to businesses and a staunch opponent of federal regulations they called unnecessary and burdensome.

On Tuesday, Pruitt addressed EPA employees for the first time as their new boss. He spoke of stepping back from the aggressive regulations of recent years and said there need not be a contradiction between environmental protection and energy production or job creation.

"We as an agency and we as a nation can be both pro-energy and jobs and pro-environment," he said. "We don't have to choose between the two."

Chris Mooney and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report. This post has been updated. 

More from Energy and Environment:

Hundreds of current, former EPA employees urge Senate to reject Trump's nominee for the agency

The West's largest coal-fired power plant is closing. Not even Trump can save it.

Scott Pruitt, longtime adversary of EPA, confirmed to lead the agency

Trump EPA official juggles two jobs in two Washingtons, and it hasn't gone well

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Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on the environment and public health issues.

Steven Mufson covers energy and other financial matters. Since joining The Post, he has covered the White House, China, economic policy and diplomacy. Follow @StevenMufson.

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