THE LIGHTBULB

A Democratic watchdog group is accusing President Trump's top environmental law enforcer of misusing funds to rail against the Paris climate agreement.

In a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) sent Thursday, the American Democracy Legal Fund said Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, one of the Trump administration's most outspoken critics of the climate deal, violated an obscure grassroots-lobbying law called the Antideficiency Act, which bars federal agencies from spending federal money before it has been appropriated by Congress (or in excess of such funds).

Current law prohibits federal employees from lobbying members of the public to support or oppose legislation before Congress. The watchdog group zeroed in on a meeting Pruitt had in April with the National Mining Association, a lobbying group in Washington for the mining industry, in which Pruitt reportedly "bashed" the Paris deal, according to media reports at the time.

"Pruitt’s staff also urged lawmakers and conservative groups to publicly criticize the agreement, sources familiar with the issue told Politico, which had the effect of increasing public pressure on Trump," Politico reported of the April meeting

The problem, according to the complaint: By that point, some members of Congress had introduced Paris-related pieces of legislation — mostly bills either reaffirming or denouncing the agreement that went nowhere as President Trump weighed whether to withdraw the United States from the agreement, which he ultimately announced he would do in June.

“Scott Pruitt misused the taxpayer money that funds the EPA and the powers of his office with his illegal lobbying activities," Brad Woodhouse, a former communications director for the Democratic National Committee who heads ADLF, said in a statement.

Legal experts who reviewed ADLF's claims say some of them hold water. The issues raised in the letter "will likely, in my view, be taken seriously by the comptroller general and his staff," said Howell E. Jackson, a law professor and expert on federal budget policy at Harvard, referring to GAO head Gene L. Dodaro.

That law also entangled the EPA under President Obama.

In 2015, GAO ruled the EPA under Pruitt's predecessor, Gina McCarthy, broke the law by using appropriations to conduct indirect lobbying in support of the Obama administration's controversial "Waters of the United States" (WOTUS) rule, designed to greatly expand the number of waterways under the jurisdiction of federal clean-water laws. The EPA launched a social-media campaign to counter opposition to the water rule from the farming and construction industries, along with their Republican allies in Congress representing rural constituencies.

"If he did it," Jeffrey Lubbers, an administrative law professor at American University said of Pruitt and his meeting with the mining group, "it seems like it's of the same piece as what EPA was being charged with in the WOTUS rulemaking."

The ADLF also alleged the EPA administrator broke another prohibition against "covert propaganda" that requires federal employees to clearly identify themselves when disseminating information to the public. The watchdog group said that in the many media interviews Pruitt gave criticizing the Paris deal as the Trump administration formulated its official position, he failed to make clear "whether Pruitt spoke on behalf of the EPA or himself."

"Pruitt makes it very fuzzy whether he’s talking just for himself or whether he’s expressing EPA policy," said Charles Tiefer, who teaches law at the University of Baltimore.

"I myself at the time heard him speaking in the media and I wasn't sure if he was speaking for himself or the EPA," Tiefer added. "I was baffled and I’m a law professor."

Tiefer said Pruitt, as EPA administrator, is continuing to act like a national campaigner against Obama-era regulations that he was as Oklahoma attorney general, despite the new constraints placed on him as a federal employee.

But Lubbers, at American University, said it is difficult to see what is furtive about the broadcast television and radio interviews Pruitt has given. 

"When you're appointed the head of the EPA, you're always the head of EPA," Lubbers said. "So it was pretty clear he was speaking as the head of EPA. So I don't see any covertness in his speech. So that part of it just strikes me as really far-fetched."

In the letter, Woodhouse's group asked GAO to investigate Pruitt. But that office, the top auditing institution in the federal government, only launches probes at the request of members of Congress or other federal agencies, meaning an elected official will have to echo ADLF's concerns before the GAO acts.

"We don’t act on requests from outside parties," Chuck Young, a GAO spokesperson, said. 

The EPA did not respond to a request for comment.

POWER PLAYS

-- A six-month check-in at the Energy Department: The Post's Steven Mufson and Chris Mooney have a great overview of all that's happened under Energy Secretary Rick Perry's watch at the department.

The entire article is worth reading. But the biggest question to emerge from it is: What exactly does Perry want for the Energy Department? Here's Mufson and Mooney on the former Texas governor's "ambiguous role" so far:

As governor of Texas, the glad-handing Perry wrote letters urging then-energy secretaries to steer federal largesse to projects in his state, according to departmental correspondence records. He sought money for carbon capture and sequestration, testing wind turbines, organic fuels, loan guarantees for nuclear plants and state energy grants.

Then in 2012, he campaigned for president vowing to abolish the entire Energy Department, famously forgetting its name during one debate.

In his new role as secretary, he called the national laboratories “science and engineering treasures” and the “crown jewel of this country.” On July 3, he tweeted “This Lab is Your Lab” to the tune of Woody Guthrie’s famous anthem.

But the secretary is seen as lacking influence over the agency’s direction. Besides Perry, there have been nominations for only four out of 21 top Senate-confirmed leadership slots at the agency; none has been confirmed.

“There is a complete void of leadership,” said an upper-level official at the department who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect himself from retaliation. “It’s painful.”

--More on Zuckerberg's park tour: The Post's Lisa Rein has more on Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg's visit to Glacier National Park last Saturday to tour the melting glaciers on Montana’s northern Rockies, during which two climate experts were barred from showing Zuckerberg around.

The kicker: National Park Service's public affairs staff "was instructed not to post anything about Zuckerberg’s visit on its Facebook or other social media accounts, including sharing a Facebook post he wrote during the visit in which he registered his alarm at the shrinking glaciers at the park, according to someone with knowledge of the directive."

As if the co-founder of Facebook was incapable spreading that post far and wide himself without NPS's help.

-- Hot-rod mod: The Department of Justice announced Thursday that it had dropped a requirement that Harley-Davidson spend $3 million to fight air pollution as part of a settlement reached with the Obama administration,"  The Post's Sintia Radu reports. "The Milwaukee-based company will remain responsible for $12 million in fines for selling illegal Screamin' Eagle motorcycle tuners. But it will no longer be compelled to pay $3 million to an American Lung Association project promoting cleaner-burning cook stoves, according to the notice from the Justice Department."

-- Think Trump's already rolled back a lot of regulations? You haven't seen anything yet: On Thursday, the administration unfurled a list of 860 pending regulations it would either suspend or pull. "I cannot express to you enough how much things have changed when it comes to the regulatory burden, the attitudes toward regulations, in this country, and you are just going to see more of that for the next eight years,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters Thursday, presuming his boss would win a second term.

-- After Interior Department scientist Joel Clement published an op-ed in The Post accusing the Trump administration of retaliation "for speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities," the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Maria Cantwell (Wash.), said she will ask the department's internal investigations office to look into the matter.

 

-- Won't someone think of the sharks? President Trump’s trips to his private Florida resort have inadvertently created a setback for a researcher who monitors area blacktip sharks. Stephen M. Kajiura, a professor of biological sciences at Florida Atlantic University conducts aerial surveys from a small plane to "record the abundance and migration patterns of blacktip sharks off southeast Florida", writes The Post's Juliet Eilperin. "But every time Trump takes a trip to Mar-a-Lago, the Federal Aviation Administration issues a no-fly-zone around the resort. Those flight restrictions have blocked Kajiura from his tracking flights. So far during his presidency, Trump’s frequent trips to his Winter White House have reduced the biologist’s surveys by a third. “He has no idea that he’s doing it, but it does mean a significant reduction,” Kajiura told Eilperin, adding that while he didn’t mean to complain, he believed it was the first time there has been “a direct imposition on data collection by a visiting president.”

-- Road rage: The House voted 248-179 to allow construction of an 11-mile road through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. 

Why is a short road in rural Alaska so controversial? 

  • Pro: Currently, the residents of the isolated town of King Cove, often hit with bad weather, need to be flown to hospitals in medical emergencies, proponents say. A road solves that problem.
  • Con: A road would degrade wetland wilderness in the refuge, opponents say.

The bill now needs to pass the Senate, though Rep. Don Young, Alaska's lone congressman, suggested the Trump administration may be able to take action without congressional approval.

“But I’ve still got one more ace in the hole," Young said, according to Alaska Public Media. "So I’m planning on getting that road finished.”

-- The Senate has voted to advance President Trump’s pick to be the deputy secretary of the Interior Department. The Senate voted 56-39 on Thursday to end debate on David Bernhardt, who will now move to a final confirmation vote next week.

Environmentalists have urged Democrats to vote against the Bernhardt’s nomination for the No. 2 spot at Interior, citing concerns with his former lobbying work on behalf of energy companies.

Bernhardt has said he will recuse himself from decisions on former clients, The Hill reported, “If he’s confirmed, he will oversee the same companies at the Department of Interior,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “That is, he will be making decisions on the same things he lobbied for. At the agency, he’ll be on the other side of the table, and after a short time, be able to make decisions in these areas.”

OIL CHECK

-- On Thursday, ExxonMobil was fined $2 million by the Treasury Department for breaking sanctions against Russia after it annexed Crimea. 

What happened: "The violations involved the signing of legal documents related to oil and gas projects in Russia with Igor Sechin, the head of Rosneft, the Russian state oil company, and another person," The New York Times reports. Rosneft is the state-owned firm in Russia with which Exxon struck a massive $500 billion deal in 2012 to drill for oil in the Arctic and elsewhere in Russia.

  • The damage (to Exxon's balance sheet): small. Exxon's net income for the first three months of this year was $4.1 billion.
  • The damage (to the Ukraine-related sanctions program): "significant," according to the report issued by the Treasury Department.

Exxon has filed a lawsuit against the Treasury calling the enforcement action “unlawful” and “fundamentally unfair." The violations occurred under the watch of Rex Tillerson, former Exxon chief executive and current secretary of state. That creates a strange legal battle that is pitting Tillerson against another Trump Cabinet member, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

"Trump sought to stack his cabinet with titans of industry, hoping that their corporate expertise would help them confront global problems," The Post's Damian Paletta and Carol Morello report. "But this new entanglement shows the flipside of such an arrangement. Cabinet secretaries may bring into office unresolved questions about corporate practices that are now subject to scrutiny by the government they help run."

-- This could be the next big strategy for suing over climate change: Three new legal battles in California signal a new attempt to hold individual companies responsible for their effects on climate change, write Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis.

The cases against dozens of major oil, coal and fossil fuel companies, including Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell assert that the companies are “collectively responsible for about 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions between 1965 and 2015,” Mooney and Dennis write, and that they should have known about the potential impact.

Marin County Supervisor Kate Sears told The Post “this lawsuit is a natural next step in how we address the expense we’ve already had in planning for and trying to remediate the impacts of sea level rise, but also in addressing the impacts we expect in the future.”

Mooney and Dennis add: “The California cases are also proceeding under a legal doctrine called ‘public nuisance’ (among other claims), which charges that under California common law, the companies have injured the counties and cities by contributing to rising seas, and more frequent and severe flooding as a result.

But the difference is that this time, they are making state level nuisance claims rather than federal ones, which have already failed as courts pointed out that those worried about climate change had other recourses, such as EPA action.”

Some legal hurdles the cases face are that the companies can argue that each of them contributed minimally to climate change, and that by selling the fuel to other consumers who used it to power cars and homes, they did not directly emit carbon into the atmosphere.

THERMOMETER

-- Give me a break: The researchers who announced last week that a massive iceberg broke off of the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctic now say there’s another rift in the ice. Scientists from Project MIDAS wrote that the new crack “will probably soon turn towards the shelf edge, there may be a risk that it will continue on to Bawden Ice Rise,” a critical point that keeps the ice shelf stable.

And according to Climate Central, satellite images show the trillion-ton, Delaware-sized iceberg that broke off last week has already started to crack. The iceberg, named A68, has already traveled 1.5 miles from the ice shelf. 

-- R.I.P. to a lead leader: Herbert L. Needleman, a pediatrician and psychiatrist who demonstrated in the late 1970s that children exposed to even small amounts of lead could suffer intellectual and behavioral deficits, died this week. His work that spurred and emboldened wide-ranging safety regulations that removed lead from gasoline and banned lead pipes.

DAYBOOK

Coming Up

The American Enterprise Institute is holding an event on carbon taxes with remarks from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) on July 26. 

EXTRA MILEAGE

Watch President Trump crush a vial in a product demonstration:

A 9-year-old boy finds 1 million-year-old fossil:

President Trump's attack on Attorney General Jeff Sessions raises more questions about the Russia investigation:

Sen John McCain's (R-Ariz.) most courageous political moments:

Jeff Sessions says he will stay in his role as attorney general following President Trump's criticisms: