Under President Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency has been bent on undoing Obama administration policy at nearly every turn. But when it comes to public-records requests, Scott Pruitt's EPA wants to complete the work his predecessors left unfinished.
Three former aides to the EPA administrator confirmed to congressional investigators that the EPA has instituted a “first-in, first out” policy for requests for public documents under the Freedom of Information Act. The reason for prioritizing Obama-era records, according to the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, has everything to do with delaying the release of emails and other government documents pertaining to Pruitt's own tenure.
According to Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), both Justice Department guidelines and the EPA’s own FOIA regulations call for the agency to complete simpler requests ahead of more complex ones, instead of just tackling them in the order they are received.
But prioritizing FOIA requests by the order in which they were filed means the even the simplest of requests can go unfulfilled as they wait in line.
The end result: The most pressing FOIA requests — i.e., the ones about Pruitt and his deputies — may not be completed in a timely manner, according to Pruitt's critics.
The “first-in, first out” tactic is yet another example of the EPA restricting what records make their way into the public eye since Pruitt has taken office. That public-records policy was described in a letter Cummings sent Monday to Pruitt requesting documents from the administrator. "Combined with your refusal to produce documents requested by Congress," Cummings wrote, "your actions in delaying records under FOIA raise concerns about a fundamental lack of transparency at EPA."
The House Oversight Committee's investigation into Pruitt is just one of at least a dozen federal inquiries the EPA chief is facing over his questionable spending and management decisions at the agency.
Pruitt's tenure has also drawn the scrutiny of journalists, environmentalists and other members of the public who have filed thousands of FOIA requests with the EPA since Pruitt has taken office and attempted to unravel environmental rules put in place by the previous administration.
According to the Cummings letter, Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff Kevin Chmielewski told the committee’s staff that Pruitt instructed his staff “not to respond to FOIA requests regarding your tenure until requests from the Obama Administration had been completed." Two other former Pruitt aides, Sarah Greenwalt and Millan Hupp, confirmed the “first-in, first out” policy, according to the letter.
In response to a request for comment about the letter, the EPA noted that it has been flooded with FOIA requests since the start of Pruitt’s tenure even as it sits on a backlog of requests. “Since the beginning of this administration, EPA has seen a dramatic increase in FOIA requests as compared to the last administration, including a nearly 200% increase in the Administrator’s office alone, and the Agency is working to release them in a timely manner,” EPA spokeswoman Kelsi Daniell said. “When Administrator Pruitt arrived at EPA he inherited a backlog of FOIA requests, some dating back to 2008, and over the last year and a half, EPA has worked tirelessly to clear this backlog.”
Daniell added that the agency will respond to details of the letter “through the proper channels.”
One of the consequences of the "first in, first out" policy is some FOIA requesters have had to sue to get the records they need. One of those plaintiffs was the Sierra Club, which ultimately received a cache of emails that helped fuel a series of recent news stories about Pruitt.
One of the email exchanges in that batch helped show, for example, that Pruitt spent $1,560 on a dozen customized fountain pens from a Washington jewelry store emblazoned with the EPA’s seal and Pruitt’s signature. In response, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) successfully stuck an amendment limiting Pruitt's pen costs into a spending bill now making its way through the House.
“Scott Pruitt will do everything possible to operate in the shadows because every time his veil of secrecy is pulled back, we find more reasons he should resign,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “Documents obtained by the Sierra Club’s FOIA litigation have revealed even more about Pruitt’s unethical and potentially illegal behavior, so it’s no wonder he’d try and obstruct the process.”
Even without such restrictions, bureaucrats often complete FOIA requests much more slowly than petitioners prefer. “FOIA is often a slow and difficult process, but under Pruitt, the EPA has taken FOIA obstruction to a whole new level,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, a watchdog group that has filed more than 70 FOIA requests with the EPA. Evers added that “more often than not, we’ve been forced to go to court to release documents that should belong to the public.”
Not every political appointee at the EPA agreed with the “first-in, first out” approach. Greenwalt, at one time Pruitt’s senior counsel, objected to the policy. A better way to handle the flood of FOIA requests, she told the committee according to the letter, was to “evaluate them as they come in, recognizing that some FOIAs are larger than others and more time-consuming and more complicated than others.”
She also told the committee that she personally reviewed some FOIA responses to identify “potential additional redactions,” according to the letter. Both Greenwalt and Hupp left their jobs at the EPA last week.
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— “We’re ready to write a new chapter between our nations:” After a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump proclaimed the two had “developed a very special bond” and signaled a “new chapter” that could break a cycle of nuclear brinkmanship, The Post reports. “Yesterday’s conflict does not have to be tomorrow’s war,” Trump said at a news conference in Singapore following a more than four-hour summit on Tuesday. Trump said Kim pledged to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and agreed to destroy a missile site in the country.
“But Trump provided few specifics about what steps Kim would take to back up his promise to denuclearize his country and how the United States would verify that North Korea was keeping its pledge to get rid of its nuclear weapons, saying that would be worked out in future talks,” David Nakamura, Philip Rucker, Anna Fifield and Anne Gearan write.
Rucker and Gearan describe the meeting of the two leaders as an “extraordinary tableau” that was a “stark contrast to what had transpired three days earlier and half a world away in Canada, where an embittered Trump sat sternly, his arms crossed and his face impassive, as the leaders of America’s oldest Western allies pleaded with him not to rupture the established world order with his retaliatory trade policies. For Trump, the Group of Seven summit in Quebec was an irritating obligation, but his tête-à-tête with Kim here was a bid for history.”
Meanwhile: A spokesman for the Iranian government is warning the North Korean leader that Trump could later nullify any deal. “We are facing a man who revokes his signature while abroad,” Mohammad Bagher Nobakht is quoted as saying in the Fars news agency, according to the Associated Press. Trump announced last month he would pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
In an exclusive interview, Energy Secretary Rick Perry tells @Rene_MarshCNN his dept. will "play a lead role" if N. Korea talks are successful, although he says he "doesn't know" what Trump is presenting https://t.co/vTCvSoLnoh pic.twitter.com/r7JcuO5Y57— New Day (@NewDay) June 11, 2018
— Perry’s “integral” role in denuclearization: Energy Secretary Rick Perry said Monday the department will “play an integral role” in any nuclear negotiations between Trump and the North Korean leader. “They’re the lead agency,” Perry said in an interview with CNN about plans in place for the summit. “If we’re successful, as we hope the president is in his negotiations to allow for the denuclearization of the peninsula, the Department of Energy will play a significant, if not lead, role.”
Flashback: Perry's predecessor as energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, similarly played a key role in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal. But unlike Perry, Moniz is a nuclear physicist by training.
— Sanctions over cyberattacks: The Trump administration imposed fresh sanctions on three Russians and five firms involved in conducting cyberattacks targeting the United States’ energy grid and other infrastructure. The Treasury Department sanctioned the parties for helping Russia’s Federal Security Service carry out the cyberattacks, Ellen Nakashima reports. “The entities designated today have directly contributed to improving Russia’s cyber and underwater capabilities through their work with the FSB and therefore jeopardize the safety and security of the United States and our allies,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
— Give us the amendment: A group of 13 Republican senators is calling on Trump to let them approve the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which aims to cut emissions by reducing the use of hydrofluorocarbons. “By sending this amendment to the Senate, you will help secure America’s place as the global leader in several manufacturing industries, and in turn give American workers and advantage against their competitors in the international marketplace,” the GOP senators wrote in a letter.
What are hydrofluorocarbons? HFCs, found in aerosols and refrigerants, are a class of potent greenhouse gases that the Kigali amendment aims to reduce in the atmosphere. However, the GOP letter does not mention climate change by name — a perhaps telling detail about the state of Republican politics under Trump.
— "There is still a lot of work to do:" The entire Democratic caucus of the House Natural Resources Committee has requested a hearing on workplace and sexual harassment at the Interior Department and its agencies. The letter to committee chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) cites a January report from the Interior Department on employees’ experiences with harassment, which found 8 percent of the agency’s employees reported being sexual harassed over the past year. “Recent events make it clear that there is still a lot of work to do to address sexual harassment and other forms of harassment, especially at the bureau level," the letter reads. Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) said in a statement Monday that he made a similar request to Bishop for a hearing a year ago.
— A plan to kill one protected species to save another: To save threatened and endangered fish, Oregon officials are seeking permission to kill sea lions that are targeting them. “They gobble up so many winter steelhead at Willamette Falls, south of Portland, that state biologists say there’s a 90 percent chance the fish run will go extinct,” The Post’s Karin Brulliard reports. If they are permitted, Oregon officials could trap and kill as many as 92 sea lions in the area each year. “The conflict pits one protected species against another in an unusual battle that kill-plan proponents say is lopsided in favor of a thriving predator and that opponents say makes the species a scapegoat,” Brulliard adds.
— The “Tree of Life” is dying: The world's oldest baobab trees, with their thick and wide trunk that branches high above the ground, are collapsing around the world. The trees, found in savanna regions of Africa, Madagascar and Australia, can grow to be thousands of years old. New research has found that in the past 12 years, “9 of the 13 oldest and 5 of the 6 largest individuals have died, or at least their oldest parts/stems have collapsed and died.” Adrian Patrut of Babes-Bolyai University in Romania, who led the study, suspects climate change is involved, The Post’s Chris Mooney reports. While the study itself says “further research is necessary to support or refute this supposition,” Patrut said the “largest trees, they need more water and nutrients than the smaller trees, and they are most affected by temperature increase and drought.”
— The last straw: Three major companies are vowing to remove plastic straws and bags from their properties, just weeks after a pilot whale was found dead in Thailand near the Malaysian border with 17 pounds of plastic in its stomach. SeaWorld, Ikea and Royal Caribbean are the latest in a host of businesses and governments to make a pledge to reduce the global use of 8 million metric tons of plastic that reach and pollute oceans each year, The Post’s Darryl Fears reports.
— Back-to-back storms: The Eastern Pacific hurricane season is off to an intense start. Soon after Aletta, the first hurricane of the season in the ocean, formed and quickly reached Category 4 strength, Bud followed suit. The second named hurricane formed from a tropical storm on Sunday into a Category 3 hurricane on Monday, and was located about 475 miles south of the southern tip of Baja California in Mexico, The Post’s Jason Samenow reports.
The big picture: Bud became a hurricane more than a month ahead of the average date of the second eastern Pacific hurricane. As Capital Weather Gang tropical weather specialist Phil Klotzbach tweeted:
Bud is now a hurricane - the 2nd of the 2018 NE Pacific season. Average date of 2nd NE Pacific hurricane formation is July 14. pic.twitter.com/S8rSY8yzvu— Philip Klotzbach (@philklotzbach) June 10, 2018
— No more monkeying around: German prosecutors said Monday they are investigating Audi chief executive Rupert Stadler and another unnamed member of the company’s executive board on suspicion of fraud as part of the ongoing investigation into Volkswagen’s emissions cheating scandal. “The investigation is a blow to Mr. Stadler, a longtime executive at Audi and its parent Volkswagen, who has repeatedly denied any knowledge that diesel engines made by the companies were rigged to cheat on emissions tests before the practice was disclosed by U.S. authorities in 2015,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Prosecutors said the investigation against Mr. Stadler was opened on May 30 but wasn’t made public until Monday after investigators raided the homes of Mr. Stadler and the unnamed Audi executive to secure evidence.”
Meanwhile: German auto giant Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, was ordered to recall 774,000 cars in Europe as a result of concerns about irregularities in the Mercedes-Benz maker’s diesel emissions, Bloomberg reports. “Unlike VW, which admitted duping official emissions tests and faces costs of some 26 billion euros ($31 billion) in fines, buybacks and recalls globally, Daimler has rejected wrongdoing,” per the report. “Daimler already voluntarily recalled some 3 million vehicles in the EU last year, alongside similar moves by VW and BMW, for software updates to improve emissions performance.”
— Bill Gates bets on energy storage: Breakthrough Energy Ventures, an investment fund financed by Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos (owner of The Washington Post), has put money into a pair of energy storage companies, Quartz reports. The two firms, Form Energy and Quidnet Energy, are developing new ways of stockpiling surplus energy from solar and wind generation by developing new batteries (in the case of Form Energy) and pumping water in underground shale rock (in the case of Quidnet).
— Renewable boost: Investment in renewable energy worldwide is outpacing spending in coal, natural gas and nuclear power plant electricity, the International Energy Agency said Monday. The IEA said more than half of power-generating capacity added in the world in recent years has been in sources such as wind and solar, the Wall Street Journal reports. In 2016, $297 billion was spent on renewables, which was more than double the $143 billion spent on new nuclear, coal, gas and fuel oil power plants.
— Gas trade boom: Global liquefied natural gas trade increased by 10 percent last year because of increased capacity for liquefaction in the United States and in Australia, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said Monday. LNG trade reached 38.2 billion cubic feed per day in 2017, Reuters reports, up 3.5 billion cubic feet a day from the year before.
— Power lines at fault for massive California wildfire: PG&E Corp. said Monday it expects to record a “significant liability” for the some of the fatal fires in Northern California last year, Bloomberg News reports. “The evidence -- which California’s fire agency has now sent to county prosecutors -- could make or break PG&E in the dozens of lawsuits over the Northern California fires that altogether killed 44 people, consumed thousands of homes and racked up an estimated $10 billion in damages,” per the report. “The alleged violations could also expose PG&E to criminal charges only two years after the San Francisco company was convicted of breaking safety rules that led to a deadly gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California.”
Correction: This newsletter initially stated Daimler was Volkswagen's parent company. It is actually the parent company of Mercedes-Benz.
- The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies holds a markup on 2019 appropriations.
- Members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission testify during an oversight hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power holds a legislative hearing on Wednesday.
- The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee holds a business meeting on the 2018 Farm Bill on Wednesday.
- The Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Superfund, Waste Management and Regulatory Oversight holds a hearing on “Oversight of the Army Corps’ Regulation of Surplus Water and the Role of States’ Rights” on Wednesday.
- The Senate Appropriations Committee holds a markup on 2019 appropriations on Thursday.
- The Center for American Progress holds an event on “Risks Posed to Climate and Energy Data from Political Interference” on Thursday.
From Politico cartoonist Matt Wuerker: