Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt flew through a storm of criticism over his use of first-class flights in the last month. Now Pruitt has emerged to throw some lightning bolts of his own.
In radio interviews over the past week, Pruitt has pushed back against criticism from environmentalists and Democrats that he is spending too much on travel.
“I’m a little bit dumbfounded by the kind of media narratives” that have emerged, Pruitt told Mark Reardon, a conservative host on KMOX in St. Louis last week.
At the same time, environmental groups are gearing up with a new campaign to oust Pruitt. On Wednesday, 10 national environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council, will begin a new campaign to remove Pruitt from office, citing what they say is Pruitt’s habit of “spending lavishly on himself.”
Taken together, the tit-for-tat is yet another sign of heightened tensions between the federal government’s main environmental law enforcer and outside environmental groups as the Trump administration works to reverse several rules proposed or enacted under President Obama.
But it’s Pruitt’s roving, not his rule rollbacks, that came to dominate headlines after The Washington Post reported in February on how first-class flights distinguished his tenure.
EPA officials initially indicated they had obtained blanket approval for him to buy premium-class tickets because of security concerns, before clarifying they clear each first-class ticket purchase with appropriate federal officials. Pruitt’s predecessors flew coach almost exclusively.
In his recent radio appearances — on KMOX and on KXL in Portland, Ore. — Pruitt defended his foreign travel expenses by noting how much his two predecessors atop the agency under Obama, Gina McCarthy and Lisa Jackson, spent on trips abroad.
“You mention $100,000?” Pruitt told KMOX’s Mark Reardon, referring to the cost of a trip he took to Italy last June. “They spent a million dollars on foreign trips during their time.”
On KLX, Pruitt called some of the media coverage "very gratuitous."
Pruitt’s office came to that figure by adding the travel and security costs of all travelers for the ex-administrators’ foreign trips, according to a spreadsheet shared by an EPA official. In total, the EPA spent spent about $731,000 on McCarthy's trips and $464,000 on Jackson's trip, according to the document.
But those totals encompass the two ex-administrators’ entire tenures heading the EPA. In contrast, a two-week stretch of travel, which included his trip to Italy, by Pruitt and his aides cost more than $120,000, according to records obtained by The Post and the Environmental Integrity Project under the Freedom of Information Act.
Pruitt defended the cost of the trip to Italy by saying it was necessary for the Trump administration to explain its decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accords to other industrialized nations’ environmental ministers, who met at the Group of Seven summit in Bologna.
In his interviews, Pruitt noted McCarthy also went to Italy in 2015 and met with Vatican officials, as well. However, that six-day trip in 2015 for her and her aides cost about $56,000 — or about half the known amount that Pruitt’s trip to Italy cost the agency.
Moreover, all but one of the trips Obama’s EPA chiefs made -- Jackson’s eight-day trip to China in 2010 -- cost less than $120,000. It is also unclear how many aides joined his predecessors on their trips, compared to collection of political aides and 24/7 security that has accompanied Pruitt during his travels.
Other trips by Pruitt strayed outside the EPA’s traditional mission. For instance, Pruitt and his detail flew to Morocco in December to promote the export of U.S. liquefied natural gas, which normally falls within the Energy Department’s portfolio.
While green groups have agitated over Pruitt ever since his nomination to run the EPA was announced in late 2016, the "Boot Pruitt" campaign represents a new level of teamwork for environmentalists. It includes an online petition as well as ads on cable news networks, including on "Fox & Friends," which Trump is known to watch.
One 30-second spot suggests President Trump should take umbrage at the excessive spending. Last September, another Cabinet-level official, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, resigned amid criticism for taking charter flights at taxpayer expense.
“Scott Pruitt, playing taxpayers and President Trump, and dangerous to your family’s health,” the ad intones.
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— Drilling for a political win: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hasty announcement that Florida would be exempt from the administration’s offshore drilling plan was “carefully choreographed” to create a political win for Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), Politico reports. Documents, including phone records, texts and emails, show officials from Scott and Zinke’s offices were in regular contact leading up to the announcement. The move was an effort to “give Scott a political win" ahead of his widely expected challenge for Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson's seat.
— Bagels, lox and apologies: D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. held a breakfast that included bagels and lox as an opportunity to hold a discussion and air grievances after White claimed a Jewish banking dynasty was manipulating the climate. “White, a Democrat elected in 2016 to represent Southeast Washington, has been privately meeting and speaking to Jewish leaders since last Monday, and is planning to visit the Holocaust Museum and attend a Passover Seder,” The Post’s Fenit Nirappil reports. “Although some residents have called for White’s resignation, lawmakers and Jewish leaders at the breakfast made clear they were content with his attempt to make amends.”
Nirappil tweeted from the breakfast on Tuesday:
Here’s what’s for breakfast as D.C. Council members prepare to mend fences with Jewish community leaders after @trayonwhite claimed Rothschilds control the climate and federal government pic.twitter.com/47nA5dUYAc— Fenit Nirappil (@FenitN) March 27, 2018
— "Don't be fooled:" Two former Obama-era EPA officials criticized Scott Pruitt’s efforts to “cripple the agency” in an op-ed in the New York Times. Gina McCarthy, the former EPA administrator, and Janet McCabe, who served as acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, urged people not to believe Pruitt’s “talk of transparency.” The former agency officials specifically referred to reports Pruitt would “no longer allow the agency to use studies that include nonpublic scientific data to develop rules to safeguard public health and prevent pollution.”
“He and some conservative members of Congress are setting up a nonexistent problem in order to prevent the E.P.A. from using the best available science,” they write. “This approach would undermine the nation’s scientific credibility.”
— More national monument drama: Fishing groups got the greenlight to move ahead with a lawsuit that would challenge the first national marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean and would reopen the area to commercial fishing. But environmentalists worry about preservation efforts in the area around the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, which was created in 2016 under the Obama administration. “The fishermen’s lawsuit had been put on hold by a review of national monuments ordered by President Donald Trump’s administration in April 2017,” the Associated Press reports. “Court filings at U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia say the stay was lifted in mid-March and the litigation can proceed.”
— Climate fears are on the rise: 45 percent of all U.S. adults say global warming poses a serious threat in their lifetimes, according to a new Gallup poll. That's the highest overall percentage recorded since Gallup first asked the question in 1997.
The rub? It's Republicans who increasingly do not believe there is a scientific consensus on climate change after President Trump spent much of the 2016 election deriding the science as a hoax. Meanwhile, an "increasing number of Democrats believe that the effects of global warming have already begun and that warming will pose a 'serious threat' in their lifetimes," The Post's Steven Mufson reports.
— Not another nor’easter: A monster storm in the Atlantic Ocean almost became the fifth nor’easter this month in the Northeast, The Post’s Jason Samenow reports. “The storm formed in similar fashion to the four nor’easters that slammed the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast earlier in the month, but just far enough offshore to mercifully spare the coast from anything other than big waves,” he writes.
— An hour in Puerto Rico: Full Frontal host Samantha Bee is hosting a one-hour special Wednesday night featuring her team visiting hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. Bee told USA Today the show was timed around the six-month anniversary of the storm.
— The world’s rarest marine mammal: Environmental groups filed a lawsuit last week charging the federal government with failing to protect the vaquita porpoise, which is considered the world’s rarest marine mammal, Mother Jones reports. Though the suit targets the Trump administration, the problem predates the president: The vaquita “has seen a rapid decline in recent years; researchers estimate there are fewer than 30 vaquita remaining in the wild, and at an extinction rate of about 50 percent each year, the four-and-a-half-foot long, 100-pound porpoise may only have a few years left.”
— Electric fleet: Waymo, the former Google self-driving division, plans to add up to 20,000 electric Jaguar SUVs to its fleet. Waymo CEO John Krafcik said the new SUVs will be the “world’s first premium electric, fully self-driving car” and will be part of its eventual fully-autonomous ride-hailing service that is set to launch later this year, The Post’s Faiz Siddiqui reports.
— Suit against sixth carmaker: BMW is the latest carmaker being sued by U.S. drivers for using software to help the company cheat diesel-emissions standards. “Drivers of ‘tens of thousands’ of X5 and 335D model diesel cars built between 2009 and 2011 sued BMW and its technology supplier, Robert Bosch GmbH, alleging they installed algorithms designed to manipulate testing systems, using methods similar to those admitted to by Volkswagen AG,” Bloomberg News reports. “They claim those vehicles are polluting at up to 27 times the legal limit, according to the complaint filed Tuesday in New Jersey federal court.”
— Could electric vehicles boost oil companies? “A new analysis by Goldman Sachs looks at how the perception that low-carbon energy would cut future oil demand — especially via electric vehicles — could actually boost the finances of the world's most powerful oil companies over the coming decade or so,” Axios reports. Why? Well, "prospect of energy decarbonization, especially the focus on EVs, is among the forces helping to disincentivize investments in big, expensive supply projects. This will continue recent years of low investment in new supply projects.”
— Energy uncertainty: Energy supply, demand and prices have become more unpredictable, according to a new study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. NPR reports “analysts are getting worse at predicting both how much oil and gas will be produced and how much Americans will need … The new study shows how prices, production and consumption sometimes exceeded expectations, and sometimes fell below what had been predicted.” One energy expert told NPR the consequences of uncertain predictions include pushing businesses to make conservative decisions.
— Aluminum vs. steel in EVs: Aluminum had largely been expected to benefit from the boom in electric vehicles. But when Tesla launched its first mass-market model last summer, the choice of steel instead of the lighter-weight metal highlighted “how steel is fighting back against aluminum,” Reuters reports. “But as makers of battery-powered cars look to tap into bigger markets with cheaper vehicles — and embrace technological developments in batteries and components — many are increasingly looking to steel to cut costs … It is the latest tussle in a decades-long battle between steel and aluminum for market share among automakers, seeking to cut the weight of vehicles to help slash emissions and meet tough government pollution standards.”
— Fracking the glass ceiling: Royal Dutch Shell named former Maersk Oil chief executive Gretchen Watkins to be its next U.S. boss, per Reuters. Current country chair Bruce Culpepper will step down at the end of the year. Bloomberg points out the move to tap Watkins for the top U.S. post is part of a trend of oil producers "increasingly promoting female executives to oversee marquee U.S. assets.“ Within the last month, BP appointed Susan Dio chairman of its American unit and elevated Starlee Sykes to regional president for the Gulf of Mexico and Canada.
- The United States Energy Association will hold a brown bag discussion.
- The Environmental and Energy Study Institute holds an event on U.S. infrastructure.
- The National Food Policy Conference begins.
- The American Association of Petroleum Geologists Global Super Basins leadership conference continues in Houston.
- The American Water Works Association’s Sustainable Water Management Conference continues.
- The Solar Energy Industries Association's California solar power expo continues in San Diego, Calif.
— The best clue about Earth’s future: The Post’s Sarah Kaplan writes about the “Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum,” which is considered “one of Earth's best analogues to this era of modern, human-caused global warming,” a phenomenon after which it took more than 150,000 years to recover.