Investigators in Congress and reporters played a role in unearthing information about Scott Pruitt’s suspect spending decisions. But much of the credit for exposing the activities of the former Environmental Protection Agency chief goes to the Sierra Club.
Now the group is making its move against his successor, acting administrator Andrew Wheeler.
The nation’s oldest environmental advocacy group overwhelmed the agency with requests for emails and other documents sent by Pruitt and his closest aides. When the EPA failed to cough up the correspondence requested under the Freedom of Information Act, the Sierra Club sued. By April, the lawsuit yielded a trove of documents used by reporters, including those at The Washington Post, to share with the public details of his behavior in office that sparked a firestorm of criticism.
This week the Sierra Club filed an amendment to a lawsuit against the EPA in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, asking the agency to release yet more communications from EPA staff — including those, for the first time, from Wheeler.
“With these FOIAs, we're keeping an eye on their external communication, which will allow us to see how they're getting information, how they're making decisions,” Sierra Club senior attorney Elena Saxonhouse said. “That was the same approach that we took with the Pruitt FOIA, and it's really the same strategy here.”
The organization is not letting up after its past FOIA requests yielded documents that helped whittle down President Trump’s support for Pruitt -- even though the former EPA chief was lauded by conservatives for reducing regulatory burdens for businesses.
For example, one of the more unusual emails unearthed by the Sierra Club was a request from Pruitt's scheduler to Dan Cathy, the chief executive of Chick-fil-A. The aide asked Cathy whether he would meet with Pruitt to discuss “a potential business opportunity.” The fast-food company eventually confirmed to The Post that Pruitt told a Chick-fil-A representative over the phone that he wanted his wife to become a franchisee.
Another exchange revealed the agency spent $1,560 on a dozen customized fountain pens emblazoned the Pruitt's signature.
Of course, the Sierra Club did not originally file its public-records requests on Pruitt with fancy pens or fried chicken in mind. “He had many ties to polluting industries,” said Saxonhouse, who was recently profiled in Slate for overseeing the Sierra Club's FOIA efforts.
“There is still a lot of people at EPA there to carry out the agenda of granting industry wish lists,” she added.
In total, the Sierra Club is seeking the records of 25 more staffers with its suit in San Francisco. The agency did not reply to a request for comment from The Post.
Environmentalists see a similar pro-industry streak in Wheeler. After working for years for Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of the most ardent opponents of climate science in the Senate, Wheeler went on to lobby for several industries, including coal and nuclear companies, before joining the Trump campaign as an energy adviser.
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— More on Wheeler: The acting administrator pledged upon taking office that he would avoid potential conflicts of interest. But E&E News reports that since taking over as acting chief of the agency, Wheeler has taken three meetings with former clients that “may have violated the Trump administration’s ethics pledge,” and attended events that included the head of a company that Wheeler agreed not to meet with through 2020. The meetings, which E&E News reports are mentioned on Wheeler’s public schedule, “stand in stark contrast to the acting EPA chief's claims that he is taking pains to avoid helping his former clients advance their interests,” per the report. “It's possible that the meetings with former clients weren't about a 'particular matter' that Wheeler previously worked on for them. But that's difficult to determine from the public calendars, and EPA didn't provide additional information about the focus of the events.”
— EPA rolls forward with some Pruitt deregulation... The Trump administration is set to halt Obama-era fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, Wheeler told USA Today, adding that the previous administration “jumped the gun” on increasing fuel-economy standards. The Obama-era agreement was to boost fuel-economy levels to an average of 34.5 mpg by 2016 and increase it yearly up to 54.5 mpg by the end of 2025, per the report.
...and reverses it elsewhere: In a 180, the EPA said Thursday it would enforce stricter pollution limits on “glider trucks,” which The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report emit dozens of times more soot and contaminants than diesel engine trucks. The move reverses ex-administrator Pruitt’s final act as the head of the agency. In a three-page memo, Wheeler said he would withdraw Pruitt’s “no action assurance” to manufacturers of glider trucks that said they would not have to limit their production to 300 trucks through the end of 2019. “In his memo Wheeler noted that the agency suspends enforcement only in rare circumstances and that after consulting with EPA lawyers and policy experts, 'I have concluded that the application of the current regulations to the glider industry does not represent the kind of extremely unusual circumstances that support the EPA’s use of enforcement discretion,’” per Eilperin and Dennis.
— Bye-bye (again), Blankenship: West Virginia blocked convicted former coal baron Don Blankenship from running for Senate as a third-party candidate. Blankenship, who finished third in the May Republican primary, had hoped to get on the ballot as the Constitution Party's nominee. But Secretary of State Mac Warner said Blankenship’s bid would violate the state's “sore loser law,” Politico reports.
But don’t count Blankenship out yet. He previously vowed to take legal action were the secretary of state to deny his bid and said in a statement Thursday he was "confident" the decision would be overturned.
— Perry tweet violated federal law: The Government Accountability Office has determined that a July 2017 tweet from the Energy Department sharing a column by Secretary Rick Perry that criticized Obamacare violated federal appropriations law. The tweet was in violation “because Energy did not show that its appropriation was available for the purpose of informing the public about health care,” the GAO concludes in its report.
The offending tweet: The @EnergyPressSec account said “Time to discard the burdens and costs of Obamacare: @SecretaryPerry” along with a link to a column written by Perry.
View from my office window as the White House makes a bad weather call - meaning the president will take a car to Andrews, rather than depart via his helicopter from the South Lawn where reporters can gather to shout questions at him. pic.twitter.com/csRYnCmbGI— Hallie Jackson (@HallieJackson) July 26, 2018
— Clear with a chance of hot air: The White House on Thursday decided to have the president take the motorcade on his way to Air Force Once rather than take Marine One, citing “bad weather” per a pool report filed shortly before 9 a.m. on Wednesday. But some pointed out that it may have been a tactic to avoid reporters who gather on the South Lawn, where Trump would have had to board the helicopter. The National Weather Service said the bit of ground fog at Joint Base Andrews at 6:30 a.m. had cleared up by 7 a.m., according to BuzzFeed News.
— Man it’s a hot one: More specifically, The Post’s Joel Achenbach and Angela Fritz write, it’s been a “hot, strange and dangerous summer across the planet.” Scorching temperatures and wildfires have impacted regions all over the world, with record temperatures in Japan, Algeria, Oman and Canada, and deadly wildfires in Greece. In the United States, 35 different weather stations have reported new warm overnight temperature records.
“The brutal weather has been supercharged by human-induced climate change, scientists say,” Achenbach and Fritz write. “Climate models for three decades have predicted exactly what the world is seeing this summer. And they predict that it will get hotter — and that what is a record today could someday be the norm.”
...and if there were any doubt that summers are getting hotter: Two separate maps showing data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration comparing June 1976 and June 2018 tell you what you need to know about the warming earth, The Post’s Jason Samenow reports. “Look at how much more red there is in 2018 vs. 1976,” he writes. “The headlines you see touting a global heat wave are not hyperbole. While there are cool pockets, most of the Northern Hemisphere, where it is currently summer, is hotter to much hotter than normal" compared with the 20th century baseline.
— Trump vs. vaquita: The United States Court of International Trade ruled Thursday that the federal government must ban seafood imports from Mexico that are caught in gillnets, fishing nets dropped in the water to entangle fish and shrimp, a method that the court ruling notes is putting the critically endangered vaquita porpoise at risk. The court denied a motion from the Trump administration to dismiss the case brought by environmental groups. The ruling notes that scientists estimate there are only about 15 vaquita left is existence, and the population could be extinct by 2021 “if current levels of gillnet fishing in vaquita’s habitat continue.”
— The last straw: Walt Disney is joining the growing number of companies that are pledging to eliminate single-use plastic straws and stirrers. The theme-park giant said Thursday it will remove those products from all parks by mid-2019, a move it said will eliminate the more than 175 million straws and 13 million stirrers it uses annually, according to USA Today.
— Some less happy news from Florida: Already this year, hundreds of sea turtles have washed up on beaches in South Florida and scientists are pointing fingers at a red tide algae bloom. Since the bloom started in October, there have been 287 sea turtle deaths in waters along the southwest Florida coast as documented by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Associated Press reports. Heather Barron, who leads the Center for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife veterinarian hospital warned about how the high number of deaths may affect the protected species long term in an interview with the News-Press in Fort Myers. "This is so devastating to the population of sea turtles that was really starting to come back, and I fear this event will have an impact for years to come," she said.
- EPA acting administrator Andrew Wheeler is scheduled to testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on August 1.
- The Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment holds a discussion on the role of science in public policy on August 2.
Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley calls B.S. on Zinke's national monument review, which has already shrunk the size of two monuments in the state: