The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Trump's environmental team scrutinized for tighter control of public records

with Paulina Firozi


Government watchdogs, environmental groups and even some top Republicans in Congress are starting to more closely examine the ways in which President Trump's environmental deputies have attempted to control the release of public records. 

The recent scrutiny is focused on how two major environmental departments, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior, decided to follow the Freedom of Information Act, which grants members of the public the right to access records from any federal agency. 

Environmental regulators have seen a surge in requests for the release of government documents since Trump took office and the administration started rolling back regulations. Yet both agencies have tried putting in place new rules giving officials and political appointees greater discretion over whether and how quickly emails, memos and other documents should be made public. 

On Tuesday, Interior's internal watchdog said it is examining the department's practice of withholding documents requested under FOIA.

News of the probe, which is not yet a formal investigation, came as four senators urged EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to reconsider a similar regulation coming into effect Friday. They introduced a new bill that undo some of the changes the EPA is seeking. 

“[T]he rule purports to make numerous changes to the EPA’s FOIA process that appear to run contrary to the letter and spirit of FOIA, thus undermining the American people’s right to access information from the EPA,” Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), John Cornyn (R-Tex.), Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wrote in a joint letter sent Tuesday to Wheeler.

And on Wednesday, environmental groups filed two lawsuits against the EPA, casting its forthcoming rule as an effort to hide the administration's actions after former EPA chief Scott Pruitt was forced out amid ethics scandals. 

"What's going on is that the EPA and Interior are just trying to withhold more information from the public," said Lisa Rosenberg, executive director of the transparency advocate Open the Government, which is not involved in the litigation. "But the way they're going about it, I would argue, is unlawful."

The EPA said its new FOIA regulation better conforms to the law as it is written, after the Barack Obama administration failed to update the regulations after new versions of the public-records law passed Congress. And the agency has argued it will respond to requests more efficiently by centralizing the work in a national office. 

“As we have said, this rule will enhance transparency and efficiency of responses to FOIA requests,” said agency spokesman Michael Abboud. “Allegations made that the rule is changing the political appointees role in FOIA are false.”

But Meg Townsend, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of four environmental groups behind the lawsuits against the EPA, suggested the new regulation "will only invite potentially more litigation and create more work for EPA staff."

Meanwhile, the Interior Department has cited exponential “increases in requests and litigation” since Trump took office as a reason it needs new rules to manage the flow of FOIA requests. The Interior secretary's office, for example, saw requests jump 210 percent between fiscal years 2016 and 2018. The EPA administrator's office saw a similar increase, from 203 up to 937 requests during that same period.

For months, nonprofit organizations focused on good governance and environmental issues have lamented how difficult it has become to extract information from both departments. The Western Values Project, for example — one several advocacy groups whose complaints spurred the Interior probe — says a request for communication between department and the office of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) have been held up because of a review by political appointees.

"Trump’s operatives at Interior are using their political power to withhold information from the public about decisions that impact America’s outdoor heritage," said Chris Saeger, the group's executive director. “The newly confirmed inspector general has an invaluable role to play, holding the Interior department accountable."

Interior spokeswoman Molly Block said the department does not comment on ongoing inspector general work. EPA spokesman Abboud said the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation.


— Four major automakers cut deal with California: Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW of North America have struck a deal with the car-crazy state's air pollution regualtors to "produce more fuel-efficient cars for their U.S. fleets in coming years, undercutting one of the Trump administration’s most aggressive climate policy rollbacks," The Post's Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report. 

What each side is getting out it:  In a joint statement, the carmakers said they "much-needed regulatory certainty" while Mary Nichols, California’s top air pollution regulator, said in an interview that she sees the agreement as a potential “olive branch” to the Trump team.

— Carbon tax measures coming out of the House and Senate: Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) is planning to introduce his own carbon tax legislation this week. According to the GOP lawmaker’s office, the bill would issue a $30 tax per metric ton of carbon and lead to a 42 percent reduction in energy-related carbon pollution by 2030, the Hill reports. “The funds raised through the tax would be used to reduce payroll taxes for employees and employers, fund research into clean energy and compensate low-income households for increased costs,” it added.

Across Capitol Hill: Democratic Sens. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) plan to introduce on Thursday a carbon tax bill meant to generate $2.5 trillion over 10 years, while cutting carbon emissions by 55 percent by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050, compared with 2017 levels, Reuters reports. The measure will issue a fee on oil, natural gas and coal and “would rebate about 70 percent of the money to families that make less than $130,000 per year, and use the rest for energy infrastructure, job retraining for fossil fuel workers, and research and development.”

— The growing lobbying effort around PFAS: There’s been a marked increase in spending by companies looking to have an effect on how the federal government regulates toxic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Two companies doubled their spending in the second quarter of the year, compared with the same time last year, E&E News reports. The chemical maker 3M spent $1.89 million on lobbying in Washington during that quarter, though it is not clear how much went to lobbying efforts concerning PFAS. 3M reported “working to shape major legislation that dealt with PFAS, including the NDAA and EPA's ongoing deliberations about the chemicals,” E&E reports.

— A water crisis in California: Up to 1,000 community water systems in California could be at risk of being unable to provide drinking water, the New York Times reports, based on information from the California State Water Resources Control Board. The crisis has been a part of daily life for more than a year in communities where discolored water has run from faucets in hundreds of homes. “Nationally, political leaders have struggled to reach consensus over how to rebuild America’s aging infrastructure, including the country’s drinking water systems, which the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a D rating in its 2017 report,” the Times reports. “In California, the abundance of small water districts, a fraught culture around water rights, and significant oversight gaps have exacerbated those problems.”

Meanwhile: California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a law Wednesday directing $130 million a year to clean up drinking water — money that will be shifted from a fund meant to go toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the Associated Press reports. “That fund is part of the state’s cap and trade program, which requires the states’ biggest polluters — including oil refineries and farms — to buy credits that let them pollute. The program has generated more than $9.5 billion since its inception, and state officials are supposed to use that money to improve the environment.”

A glacier is dead. A monument will tell visitors whose fault it was. (Morgan Krakow)

The U.S. and Europe are pursuing sharply different plans for patrols in the Persian Gulf  (Adam Taylor and James McAuley)

President tweets American farmers ‘starting to do great again’ — except they’re not (Laura Reiley)



  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee holds a hearing on the importance of energy innovation for economic growth and competitiveness.


A 9-year-old girl from Odessa, Fla., was injured after a male bison charged at her at Yellowstone National Park on July 22. (Video: KTVQ News)

— “Never approach animals”: A charging bison at Yellowstone National Park tossed a 9-year-old girl into the air, The Washington Post’s Allyson Chiu reports. “According to witnesses, a group of approximately 50 people were within 5-10 feet of the bison for at least 20 minutes before eventually causing the bison to charge the group,” the National Park Service said in a news release, confirming that a Florida girl was injured. “Wildlife in Yellowstone National Park are wild. … When an animal is near a trail, boardwalk, parking lot, or in a developed area, give it space.”