The activists gathered behind closed doors in a Houston hotel meeting room last week had long existed on the political fringe. They’d dismissed the science behind climate change, preached the virtues of fossil fuels and seethed about the Environmental Protection Agency’s power and reach.
They also had been largely ignored by many top federal officials. Until the election of President Trump.
But now, at the private meeting sponsored by a free-market think tank, the Heartland Institute, the activists were both giddy and grumpy. So much of what the Trump administration had done to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations was positive, they agreed, as were the White House’s efforts to promote the oil and gas industry and halt federal action to combat climate change.
And yet, they said, it wasn’t nearly enough.
Heartland officials handed out a three-page “Energy Freedom Scorecard” that evaluated the extent to which Trump and his deputies had delivered on their top policy priorities. As much as they welcome the administration’s efforts, the scorecard made clear that they think the president could do more, much more.
The scorecard, obtained by The Washington Post, and the private discussion, which was recorded and shared by a participant, highlight the extent to which those on the right are pushing Cabinet members such as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to enact even more sweeping changes. And they show how conservatives are working to place key allies in top policy posts in the White House and elsewhere, including on boards that help guide federal policy.
“There are ways to get names in, and we’ve used every door and window and crack in the wall we can use,” David Schnare remarked per the recording. Schnare served on Trump’s beachhead team for the EPA but was forced out this spring after clashing with Pruitt.
The scorecard lists several items as “done,” from rescinding Obama-era rules curbing carbon emissions from power plants and opting out of the Paris climate agreement to reducing “government funding of environmental advocacy groups” by limiting legal settlements and approving the Keystone XL pipeline as well as other oil pipelines. Nineteen other items fall into the “started” category, such as cutting “government funding of climate change research”; repealing “unnecessary restrictions and state bans on fracking”; and ending “conflict of interest on scientific review boards.”
But 15 goals listed “not done” include ending federal tax credits to wind and solar producers and no longer basing military planning and strategies “on the predictions of flawed climate models.”
Heartland Institute spokesman Jim Lakely confirmed that the group produced the scorecard but declined to elaborate.
The fact that so many priorities remain on the to-do list, which was drafted on Oct. 15, helps explain why several attendees at the private session still groused about the administration’s pace.
Schnare and other participants also railed about other issues. Competitive Enterprise Institute senior fellow Myron Ebell, who headed the EPA’s transition team for the administration, described its “key failing” as a “totally dysfunctional personnel process.”
“We only got people nominated to the subordinate positions at EPA this summer,” Ebell said.
Schnare criticized both Pruitt and the White House for not trying to revoke EPA’s 2009 “endangerment finding,” which provided the scientific basis for the agency to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.
“So the question then becomes, what pressure can you put on Mr. Pruitt to make him do it?” Schnare told the group, before starting to mimic his former boss’s twang. “The answer he gave me was, ‘Dave, if the president tells me to do it, I’ll do it. Otherwise, I’ll decide what I’m going to do.’ Well, okay, and then I resigned.”
At another point, Schnare raised the idea of using the threat of litigation to force the EPA to act — an approach conservatives have dubbed “sue and settle,” and one that Pruitt curtailed after criticizing it for benefiting environmental groups.
“If we come up with this case and say, well, this is what we want to do, and then we send a little note off to Scott Pruitt and say, ‘We are going to sue you, would you like to sit down and talk.’ It’s not exactly sue and settle, it’s just, ‘We are going to sue your a–, and you ought to settle,’ ” Schnare said on the recording. His audience laughed in response.
But Pruitt, in a video message for the Heartland gathering, emphasized their shared sense of mission.
“Think back to Nov. 8 of last year, the lack of optimism, the concern about where we were headed as a country. And think about where we are today,” he said in the video. “So, I want to say to you at the Heartland Institute, thanks for what you’re doing to advance energy. Thank you for what you’re doing to advance natural resources.”
While neither Pruitt nor Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt could make the meeting in person, Interior energy policy counselor Vincent DeVito did address the crowd.
Asked this week why DeVito had chosen to speak to the conservative group, Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an email, “The summit was an opportunity to communicate the progress the department has made on energy and restoring multiple-use and access to federal lands, as well as share ideas and perspectives on how to achieve energy dominance.”
The institute’s scorecard on energy issues, Swift added, reflected that Interior “is making incredible progress on restoring traditional multiple uses and access to public lands and toward cutting costly and job-killing regulations on responsible energy development.”
One environmentalist had a different take on the gathering’s discussion. “You’d think these guys would be happy,” Greenpeace USA researcher Connor Gibson said in an email Wednesday. Instead, “at a time when they have extraordinary power, they have formed a circular firing squad, mocking each other for not holding extreme enough positions and chastising Trump’s EPA for not prioritizing an attack on the legal mandate for EPA to control carbon emissions.”
The closed-door discussion last week certainly featured praise for Trump and his deputies. Heartland’s chief executive Joseph Bast, for example, made a point of explaining to his colleagues how the president’s rhetoric on issues such as climate change had already produced results.
“I think the president has done a nice job of not talking about global warming. When’s the last time you heard Donald Trump say ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’?” Bast said, according to the recording. “That’s shifting the debate. The less the president talks about it, the less often it appears in news stories and on TV, the less often it’s going to be an issue. So, this is how big issues disappear.”
The following day’s events at what was dubbed the America First Energy Conference amounted to a lengthy assault on the conclusions of mainstream science and federal climate action. There were sessions on the “future of coal,” “the cost of excessive regulation” and the “benefits of ending the war on fossil fuels.” Speakers assailed most climate scientists as alarmists, extolled the benefits of fossil fuels and blasted environmental activists, whom they equated with government overreach.
“People don’t trust the environmental left. They know they’re crazy,” one speaker said.
Another criticized the country’s growing number of wind turbines, noting that they kill large numbers of eagles and other birds each year. Still another speaker dismissed efforts to curb carbon dioxide emissions to combat climate change — a cause embraced by literally every other nation in the world — and instead argued that increased emissions were helping crop growth.
“We are greening the planet with carbon dioxide,” he said, and cutting back on fossil fuels would be a “disaster. … There is no downside to carbon dioxide. It is the breath of life.”