The Trump administration’s top environmental policymakers are engaged in a new war with their adversaries — over how much information to release to the media and outside groups, who are often perceived as enemies, as part of a heavy stream of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
At both the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department, news outlets and nonprofit organizations have uncovered meeting schedules and travel manifests through FOIA requests that illustrate the ties top officials have forged with players in industries they are tasked with regulating. FOIA requests have also shed light on EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s taxpayer-funded travel habits.
In turn: Some high-level officials at both EPA and Interior are keeping closer tabs on these FOIA requests, while at least at the EPA — according to those who have filed such requests — bureaus drag their feet in responding, Juliet Eilperin and I repor in a piece out this morning.
Read the entire story here.
Here's the breakdown of what's happening:
At Interior, Zinke’s office has taken direct control of the various FOIA requests that have piled up across the bureaucracy regarding his review of national monuments created during the last three presidential administrations.
In early November, as Zinke was finalizing his official monuments recommendations to the White House, Clarice Julka, a FOIA officer in Zinke’s office, emailed other FOIA officers in 11 different Interior offices, including the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), to inform them she and FOIA officers in the secretary’s office would handle requests pertaining to the monument review going forward.
Julka told the staffers to collect records that responded to FOIA requests about the monuments, and forward them to the secretary’s office rather than send them directly to the news outlets, corporations, nonprofits and other groups making the requests.
“This would also include any FOIA requesting records pertaining to your bureaus’ participation in the review of any monument,” Julka wrote in the Nov. 6 email obtained by The Washington Post.
Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift declined to comment on how Interior is handling national monument requests. “We don’t have anything to add on the internal process,” she said in an email.
Interior is also being sued over FOIA requests from two whistleblowers, Joel Clement and Matthew Allen, both of whom were reassigned since Trump took office.
Allen, who was working as BLM’s communications director for nearly a year before was transferred to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) in September, filed suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia over the department’s failure to release public records related to his case.
Allen’s attorney, Katherine Atkinson — who previously sued Interior over Clement’s case — said in a statement that they went to court because “federal agencies are required to release documents and records in a timely manner as part of their responsibility to transparency to the American people.”
In an interview, Allen said he had disagreed with how political appointees at BLM, including then-acting director Michael Nedd, handled public records requests.
Nedd, a longtime BLM employee appointed by Zinke to the acting position, asked to review and weigh in on FOIA requests that identified him specifically, Allen said, adding that he reported Nedd’s request to Interior’s deputy secretary. Dan Dubray, BLM’s acting communications director, said the bureau’s director is apprised of FOIA requests but does not determine which documents are released.
“Any time you have leaders within a government agency who are taking steps to withhold information from the public press and the Congress,” Allen said, “we should all be concerned.”
Meanwhile at the EPA, several environmental groups and media outlets have criticized the agency for failing to more quickly provide documents responding to these requests. Pruitt announced last month his staff has prioritized clearing out the backlog of records requests filed during the previous administration. There were 652 such open requests as of October, and officials estimate they will complete 70 percent of them by the end of the year.
As of October, the EPA had 652 open FOIA requests that were submitted in prior years. The agency said it is on track to answer 70 percent of those requests by Dec. 31.
In a recent hearing before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, lawyers from two environmental groups argued that the intense level of scrutiny applied by the administrator’s office had delayed the release of critical documents.
Thomas J. Cmar, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Judge Valerie E. Caproni that hard copies of redacted documents they were waiting to receive about the delay of a rule curbing the amount of polluted water steam electric power plants can emit “had been submitted for something that was described as a senior management review before they could be finally released,” something he said was “not a normal part of FOIA procedures as we understand them.”
Asked about the procedure, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony J. Sun said “the new administration put in a procedure for this case — not all cases, but this particular case” where the office that manages Pruitt’s correspondence and records reviews any releases under FOIA.
In an email, EPA acting general counsel Kevin Minoli said that while he could not discuss that specific case, the role that office performs regarding FOIA requests “is consistent with what it was in the last administration.”
Caproni ordered the EPA to provide a complete response to the FOIA that NRDC and Earthjustice filed in April by Dec. 31. Earthjustice spokeswoman Daveon Coleman said late last month that the EPA provided the three documents that had been subject to senior management review.
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-- Carbon-capture push: In a letter sent Thursday, four senators urged leaders in the chamber to include carbon-capture-and-storage tax breaks in the end-of-year tax extenders package. In July, the ideologically diverse group — Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) — introduced a bill to create tax credits for carbon-capture projects, similar to those for wind and solar energy.
Why they might get what they want: Support is bipartisan,. Whitehouse and Barrasso — who are among the biggest proponents and detractors in the Senate, respectively, of the idea that humans are warming the planet — rarely ever agree on energy policy. Plus, Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has co-sponsored similar pieces of legislation in the past.
Most importantly, unlike the tax cuts the GOP is trying to passing right now, the tax extenders bill requires 60 votes in the Senate, meaning McConnell will need some Democratic votes.
-- “A breach of public trust:” About 35 percent of the nearly 30,000 employees at the Interior Department who participated in a survey reported they had experienced harassment or intimidation at work, the New York Times reported on Thursday. The thousands of employees said they felt the incidents were often related to their age or gender. More than 85 percent of those department employees noted they had to continue to work with the person who harassed or intimidated them, per the report. About 44 percent of the 70,000 employees who work in the Interior department responded to the survey.
Zinke called it a “breach of public trust.” “Harassment – intimidation – is a cancer that can destroy even the best organizations,” he told the newspaper. Zinke also said he had personally fired four employees over harassment accusations.
Though the issue has taken on new urgency in this #MeToo moment, harassment has been a longstanding problem for Interior. In May, a senior law enforcement official in the department who investigators documented had sexually harassed six women who worked for him or with him retired rather than face discipline, The Post's Lisa Rein reported. And Zinke's predecessor as interior secretary, Sally Jewell, acknowledged last year that a "culture" of sexual harassment probably pervades the National Park Service.
-- Tax bill update: Ari Natter and Chris Martin at Bloomberg News fill us in on the latest tax breaks for different parts of the energy sector to emerge from the conference committee trying to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the GOP tax bill:
- A crucial exemption for wind and solar credits from anti-offshoring is in: "A $12 billion tax-equity tool that U.S. wind and solar developers depend on to finance projects appears likely to remain largely intact [.]"
- Renewables orphaned in 2015 will be orphaned again in 2017: "Tax credits for fuel cells, small wind and geothermal heat pumps, which were left out of that 2015 legislation, will again be omitted."
- Nuclear credits abandoned too: "Also excluded from the final bill is the extension of a tax credit for new nuclear production that had been included in the House’s bill, according to a Republican familiar with the process."
Read their whole report here.
-- Is Dourson still at the EPA? It is unclear whether Michael Dourson, Trump’s controversial EPA nominee who withdrew his name from consideration on Wednesday, is still working in the agency as a senior adviser.
Although he removed his name from consideration to serve as head of EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention after it became clear insufficient Republicans would support him, the AP reports Dourson has been working at the department as a senior adviser to Administrator Scott Pruitt in a role that doesn't require Senate confirmation. The EPA would not say, per the AP, whether Dourson will remain in that job. The agency has also declined to disclose Dourson’s taxpayer-funded salary.
With Dourson down, the Senate marches on: On Thursday, the chamber confirmed two other EPA nominees: Matt Leopold to serve as general counsel and David Ross to run the agency's Office of Water.
-- Meanwhile, outside the EPA, more than 2,100 people, including 704 former agency employees, have signed an open letter to current EPA staff urging them to “Guard the gate" as Pruitt begins to offer buyouts to scientists and other technical experts.
“These may be the most trying but also the most crucial days of your career," reads the letter, organized by the Environmental Integrity Project. "We appreciate you, we admire you, and we look forward to relying on a strong and supported EPA in the days and decades to come. You protect our health, you protect our resources, and you ensure a safer and more truly prosperous future for all Americans."
-- The latest on Puerto Rico: More than a third of Puerto Rico is still in the dark, more than 12 weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. Power is also unstable in the areas where service has been restored. A small business advocacy group Centro Unido de Detallistas, estimates that about two-thirds of small businesses on the island have shuttered since the storm, and up to 40 percent may never reopen.
“For a decade, Puerto Rico has experienced a steady erosion of economic opportunity,” Monte Reel writes for Bloomberg Businessweek, “and now there’s a fear that the storm has convinced too many residents, a critical mass, to pursue new livelihoods elsewhere.”
NPR reports some of the problems include garbage. Even before the storm hit, the EPA said the island’s landfills were beyond capacity. And Puerto Rico’s Solid Waste Authority estimates 6.2 million cubic yards of waste and debris has gathered as a result of the storm, enough to fill about 43 football stadiums.
Puerto Rican and Latino groups continue to urge lawmakers not to create additional problems for the struggling U.S. territory with the Republican tax plan, NBC News reported.
One group went to the offices of GOP lawmakers to press its point. "Puerto Rico is under the U.S. flag and after the hurricane and fiscal crisis, the last thing we need is a hurricane full of punitive and unnecessary taxes on P.R.," Federico de Jesus, a consultant and lobbyist and former Puerto Rico government official told reporters, according to NBC News
-- Where Republicans live nationwide may give a clue about their views on climate change, a new report from the New York Times reveals. The Times breaks down research published in the journal Climatic Change that shows how maps can explain the ideological discrepancies on climate change among Republicans. Here are some highlights:
- An average of half of Republicans nationwide believe the climate is warming.
- The strongest support for the view that climate change is happening occurs on the coasts and where the effects of global warming are being felt, per the report. In Florida, the Times notes, about 56 percent of Republicans believe the climate is changing. And in Hawaii and Alaska, a majority of Republicans agree.
- Most Republicans across the country do not believe humans are causing climate change. Just 31 percent of Republicans in each congressional district say so.
- A majority of Republicans support policies to combat the effects of climate change.
- The research found 48 percent of Republicans support requiring a 20 percent renewable energy standard. Republicans on the East Coast and West Coast showed a majority support for the standard.
- More than 75 percent of Republicans in 15 states support financing renewable energy research, as well as at least 70 percent in all states except for Texas and Rhode Island, which has the nation's first offshore wind farm.
Here's more in maps from the newspaper's Brad Plumer and its graphics team:
-- There are three weather events that scientists say would not have happened in 2016 if it were not for climate change: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration compiles a report every year to pinpoint global warming's effect on weather disasters. This year, the agency found three weather events that “would simply not have occurred if climate change didn’t exist,” Capital Weather Gang’s Angela Fritz reports.
- The deadly heat wave in India and Thailand that lasted weeks in April and May and led to the death of more than 500 people.
- A severe warming in the North Pacific Ocean led to thousand of exotic crabs showing up in South California beaches, a Galapagos sea turtle spearing near San Francisco, toxic algal bloom on the west coasts of the United States and Canada and mahi-mahi appearing off the coast of Oregon.
- 2016 was Earth’s hottest year on record for the third year in a row.
-- California is still burning: A firefighter died while responding to the massive Thomas Fire in Southern California on Thursday, officials said. The largest of the flames raging across the southern part of the state continued into its 11th day. It had burned through almost 380 square miles, and destroyed 1,000 buildings, The Post’s Mark Berman reported. It was 30 percent contained as of Thursday.
The firefighter’s death is just the second fatality confirmed as a result of the recent spate of fires.
Authorities said they expect the Thomas Fire to be fully contained by Jan. 7.
Other fires in the region have been mostly contained. The Lilac Fire in San Diego County, which grew to more than 4,100 acres, was 97 percent contained and the Rye Fire in Los Angeles County, which had grown to 6,000 acres, was 100 percent contained earlier this week, Berman reports.
-- “No significant relief in sight:” That’s how the National Weather Service described conditions in Southern California in a tweet this week as firefighters continue to battle historic flames.
Latest long range computer model accumulated precipitation forecast thru Dec 28th. The doughnut hole over most of #California spells d-r-y conditions and continued critical fire weather for #SoCal. No significant relief in sight. #CAwx #ThomasFire pic.twitter.com/WR5FNB9nxt— NWS Los Angeles (@NWSLosAngeles) December 13, 2017
Capital Weather Gang’s Fritz reported Thursday morning that the Thomas fire, which this week became the fifth largest in the state’s history, was likely to climb even higher before the end of the month. Fire officials confirmed the blaze has already moved into the spot for the fourth largest fire on record, per the Los Angeles Times.
“Without any help from Mother Nature, officials are warning, fire growth is going to continue on nearly all sides of the Thomas Fire — west, east and north — in the coming days,” Fritz writes.
The long-term challenge for the area, she continued, will be a lack of rain. Forecasts predict almost no rain for another two weeks at least.
Air quality is also at a new low in Santa Barbara, she writes. Health officials have handed out more than 200,000 protective masks to prevent people from inhaling fine particles that can lead to asthma attacks and enter the lungs and bloodstream.
Fighting the fire has also been a costly. The Associated Press reports the Thomas fire has so far resulted in $74.7 million in firefighting costs, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
-- Finally, here’s a good longread to bookmark for your weekend. The New York Times takes you to a Wyoming county with seemingly limitless faith in President Trump’s promises to boost energy production and thus provide job security. Almost everyone, the paper’s Clifford Krauss writes, is dependent on energy jobs – from coal miners, out-of-state oil workers and business owners.
The residents of Converse County support the president’s plan to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, they approve of slashing environmental regulations and allowing coal leasing on federal lands. And they want to limit oil imports and boost exports.
But wind production is also on the rise in the county, a sign that it may not return to a coal boom that some are hoping for. One 36-year-old who works at a coal-fired plant praised the president, Krauss describes, but appeared wary of the future. “I think he will keep fossil fuels operating and keep E.P.A. within limits,” Shawn Gates told the Times, adding “They’re putting all these wind turbines up that are not cost effective, at the taxpayer’s expense.”
- The Inter-American Dialogue hosts an event on ”The Trump Administration, Latin America & Energy: Mexico, Natural Gas & LNG Exports.”
- Natural Gas Roundtable holds a panel discussion on natural gas and North American Energy Security.
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