An Oklahoma judge on Thursday ordered Scott Pruitt, the state’s attorney general and President Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, to turn over thousands of emails related to his communication with the oil, gas and coal industry.
The Center for Media and Democracy has been seeking the release of Pruitt’s correspondence with fossil-fuel representatives under public records laws for more than two years. The group filed suit over Pruitt’s refusal to turn over the documents and requested the expedited hearing that led to the judge’s decision, which was first reported by E&E News.
The ruling by District Court Judge Aletia Timmons, who said there had been “an abject failure to provide prompt and reasonable access to documents requested,” came a day before the Senate is expected to vote on confirming Pruitt to head the EPA, an agency that he has sued repeatedly during the Obama years.
Timmons gave the attorney general’s office until Tuesday to release the records, meaning they likely won’t come to light until after he is sworn in to his new position.
“It should never have come to this,” Nick Surgey, the advocacy group’s director of research, said in an interview. “We shouldn’t have had to go to court to force the release of emails that were requested more than two years ago. … It makes it pretty difficult for people to vet his record.”
The ruling led environmental groups and some Senate Democrats to immediately call for a delay of Pruitt’s confirmation vote until lawmakers and the public have a chance to review the emails.
“A rushed Senate vote to confirm Pruitt as EPA Administrator right now would be a travesty,” Elizabeth Thompson, vice president for climate and political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement. “The documents in question are related to Pruitt’s fitness to serve as head of EPA. Senators should exercise due diligence when confirming nominees, and they can’t do that when they’ve been denied access to relevant information.”
But those calls are likely to fall on deaf ears among Senate Republicans. Formal debate on Pruitt’s nomination was already underway on the Senate floor Thursday.
“Attorney General Pruitt has been more thoroughly vetted than any nominee for EPA administrator,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement. “Democrats have been stalling nominees across the Senate. The EPA needs an administrator. It is time to confirm him.”
Pruitt’s close ties with the fossil fuel industry have long been the focus of criticism from environmental advocates.
He has received more than $300,000 from oil and gas companies during his campaigns over the years. He also led the Republican Attorneys General Association, which received substantial sums of money from Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Murray Energy and other firms. In 2014, the New York Times reported that a letter ostensibly written by Pruitt alleging the EPA had overestimated air pollution from natural gas drilling was actually written by lawyers for Devon Energy, one of Oklahoma’s largest oil and gas companies.
“That’s actually called representative government in my view of the world,” Pruitt later said of the letter.
He has continued to defend his alliances with fossil fuel firms, saying during his recent confirmation hearing that he has never sought to represent a single company but rather stand up for the concerns of one of his state’s largest industries.
During that same hearing, Pruitt told lawmakers that as EPA administrator, he would steer the agency away from what he called an era of overzealous and unlawful regulation during the Obama years. He said the EPA under his leadership would respect the authority of states and be open to a “full range of views.”
Thursday evening, the attorney general’s office said it “remains committed to following the letter and spirit of the Open Records Act.” Spokesman Lincoln Ferguson said that in light of the court ruling, “we are reviewing all of our options in order to ensure fairness to all requestors rather than elevating the importance of some requests over others.”