Pruitt Energy Ties Not Unusual, Former EPA Officials Say

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By Tiffany Stecker

The close relationship Scott Pruitt enjoyed with fossil fuel companies as Oklahoma’s attorney general was not unusual and may continue in his new rule as EPA administrator, former agency officials said.

As Pruitt begins his role as Environmental Protection Agency administrator, his work with energy sectors that felt constrained under President Barack Obama’s environmental regulations will likely continue.

“People have sides,” Christine Todd Whitman, who served as EPA administrator in President George W. Bush’s first term, told Bloomberg BNA. “As long as you don’t take one side and put it whole cloth into a regulation,” she said, Pruitt’s relationship with the oil and gas sector shouldn’t affect the agency’s work.

The e-mails from Pruitt’s office as Oklahoma attorney general that were released Feb. 22—which suggest that oil and free-market interests inserted their views into the attorney general’s talking points—are ammunition for environmental groups that fought against his EPA nomination. But it may not be a radical departure from previous administrations. Climate change documents developed in the George W. Bush administration were commonly revised with industry language, said Dina Kruger, a former EPA official who worked under Presidents Bill Clinton, Bush and Barack Obama.

Viewpoints “were supposed to slide right in to the rule” Kruger, now president of Kruger Environmental Strategies, told Bloomberg BNA. “Working on climate change at the end of the Bush administration was pretty fraught because they weren’t going to regulate, they didn’t want to regulate.”

Under Gina McCarthy, Obama’s second EPA administrator, the agency was accused of working closely with groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council to develop the Clean Power Plan, which set the first-ever carbon emission limits on the electricity sector. The Government Accountability Office also found the EPA at fault for lobbying to promote the Clean Water Rule, which redefined which streams and wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act.

In reality, the relationship that Republicans have with fossil fuel interests is not quite analogous to the clout that environmental nonprofits hold with the left, said Kruger. Energy industries—whether oil and gas, or solar and wind—are often granted a better glimpse of agency action because the regulation will affect them directly. Environmentalists groups are not privy to the type of information that industry typically gets, and are often not in a position to offer the technical detail that companies can offer.

"[Those] being regulated typically tend to have a lot more information at their fingertips,” Kruger said. “It’s a bit of a lopsided battle, I would say.”

Devon Energy Offered Pruitt ‘Suggestions’

The Center for Media and Democracy released the e-mails after winning a federal court battle to compel the attorney general’s office to make its correspondence with the industry public. CMD initially requested the documents in January 2015. The records reveal several instances in which Pruitt’s staff asked companies, oil and gas producer Devon Energy Corp. in particular, to revise letters sent on behalf of attorneys general opposed to the Obama administration’s regulations.

In one instance, a top public affairs official for Devon Energy, an Oklahoma City oil and gas extraction company, rewrote a letter from 13 attorneys general to urge the federal government not to regulate methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing.

Deputy Solicitor General for Oklahoma Clayton Eubanks asked William Whitsitt, then executive vice president for public affairs for Devon, for help.

“I thought we should insert a sentence or two regarding the recent EPA report indicating their initial estimates on methane emissions for two categories were too high. Any suggestions?” he asked in a May 1, 2013, e-mail.

The attachment with Whitsitt’s changes was not included in the released emails, but Whitsitt told Eubanks the same day that the editing included “some further improvements from one of our experts.”

On another letter opposing the Bureau of Land Management’s rule on hydraulic fracturing, Eubanks thanked another Devon official—former director of public and government affairs Brent Rockwood—for his “guidance and assistance in getting this letter out.”

“Our engagement with Scott Pruitt as attorney general of Oklahoma is consistent —and proportionate—with our commitment to engage in conversations with policymakers on a broad range of matters that promote jobs, economic growth and a robust domestic energy sector,” a spokesman for Devon said in an e-mailed statement. “We have a clear obligation to our shareholders and others to be involved in these discussions related to job growth, economic growth and domestic energy.”

The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers sent the attorney general’s office on Aug. 30, 2013, a template for requesting waivers under the Renewable Fuel Standard, the federal program to promote ethanol use that is opposed by the petroleum industry.

Pruitt is ‘Extremely Transparent’

There is a big difference between the Pruitt concerns and those raised in 2015 over close ties between the EPA and environmental groups during the Obama administration, said a Republican staffer with the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The earlier alleged collusion took place while McCarthy was on the job. By contrast, the close ties alleged between Pruitt and industry pre-date his confirmation last week as EPA head, the aide said.

“I think there is a distinction between Pruitt’s role as attorney general and his role as an EPA administrator,” a job he was just confirmed to by 52-46 by the Senate on Feb. 17, the aide said.

Another distinction, the aide said, is that the Pruitt e-mails of concern have already been released during the very beginning of his tenure, showing transparency, while Senate Republicans were repeatedly rebuffed in their attempts to get access to e-mails from McCarthy.

“I’d note that that’s a big distinguishing element here,” the aide said. “We have all of his [Pruitt’s] e-mails. He’s being extremely transparent, whereas her e-mails and repeated attempts at oversight over Obama’s EPA were just like trying to reach into a black box.”

The comparison between McCarthy’s communication with environmental advocates and Pruitt’s communication with industry is a poor one, according to Liz Perera, clean air policy director at the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg, the majority owner of Bloomberg L.P., parent of Bloomberg BNA.

Perera told Bloomberg BNA that McCarthy “spoke to industry all the time” while running the EPA. In comparison, Pruitt didn’t appear to balance out the input he got from industry, but instead adopted industry’s viewpoint verbatim, Perera said.

While the EPW aide noted that Pruitt’s relationship with the oil and gas industry predated his confirmation, Perera said environmental advocates are concerned that industry will continue to have a large influence on his actions as EPA administrator at the expense of environmental concerns.

“I think we are concerned he will just continue this pattern,” Perera said. “We’re always open to being wrong, but history has told a tale.”

-- WIth assistance from Patrick Ambrosio, Andrew Childers, Rachel Leven, David Schultz, Dean Scott and Bloomberg News.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiffany Stecker in Washington at tstecker@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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