Scott Pruitt's office in Oklahoma City handed over 7,000 pages of internal emails to watchdogs under a court order yesterday, providing new details of his close relationship with the fossil fuel industry just days after he was confirmed to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The emails, along with a batch of documents previously released to The New York Times, place Oklahoma's former attorney general in the middle of a multi-state collaboration between Republicans and industry lobbyists to derail President Obama's regulatory efforts and fight back against litigation from environmental groups. They also offer a vivid glimpse of the direction in which the EPA is heading, now that Pruitt is running it.
Just days ago, Senate Republicans and two Democrats from fossil-fuel producing states confirmed Pruitt as EPA administrator despite protests from liberal Democrats, who warned that their colleagues would regret confirming Pruitt before the emails were released.
"Every senator who voted for Pruitt should be prepared to answer to constituents when the next Flint, Michigan crisis happens in their districts," said Greenpeace researcher Jesse Coleman in a statement to Truthout.
Unfortunately for environmentalists, Pruitt's supporters are not showing any immediate signs of regret, even after the release of the emails. After a Truthout review of the documents, we can confirm that the emails provide clear evidence that Pruitt worked with fracking companies and electric utilities to build cases against federal pollution regulation. However, these efforts are not likely to shock lawmakers into belated opposition. Pruitt's actions appear to be in step with a broader Republican agenda to protect the fossil fuel industry from the added costs of enhancing pollution prevention and cleanup.
The emails verify that Pruitt worked hand in hand with the industry his state was supposed to regulate. In 2013, a coal lobbyist suggested Pruitt's office "cut and paste" talking points from an industry white paper when encouraging other states to file comments opposing new EPA air pollution requirements for states. The lobbyist, Rod Hastie, even met with Pruitt personally to discuss a white paper covering Pruitt's work on energy issues. Pruitt's office also discussed regulations with Devon Energy, major oil and gas producer, as well as various industry attorneys and lobbyists.
Pruitt has not been shy about his support for the same industries over which he will, theoretically, serve as a federal watchdog. In fact, that's exactly how he thinks government should work. Addressing hundreds of skeptical career EPA employees on Monday, Pruitt said the "regulators exist to give certainty over those they regulate."
Jason Kowalski, the policy director at the climate group 350.org, said the email dump confirms what environmentalists already knew: Pruitt is a "professional" climate change denier, and that's exactly why he was chosen to run the EPA.
"These emails show that there is a vast network of fossil fuel companies and people they hire who have been supporting this kind of behavior in public servants for a long time," Kowalski told Truthout. "People like Scott Pruitt are unfortunately not rare in our society."
For the fossil fuel industry and its allies in government, Pruitt's ascent to the head of the EPA is a coup d'état. Stacks of letters and reports from industry lobbyists, oil and gas companies and a major electric utility in Oklahoma provided to Pruitt's office reveal intense hand-wringing about environmentalist litigation and new rules put forth by Obama's EPA, along with talking points and legal strategies to combat them.
A 2014 report from Oklahoma Gas and Electric submitted to Pruitt's office includes a long list of EPA rules designed to reduce toxic air and water pollutants, combat smog and address global warming, and describes just how these rules would add costs and create headaches for the company's power plants.
The utility said it was preparing to spend millions of dollars on pollution control equipment and even start burning natural gas instead of coal at one facility. Of course, Obama-era regulations were designed to force polluters to invest in cleaner technology and move away from coal power, the nation's largest source of climate-warming greenhouse gas.
However, Oklahoma Gas and Electric complained that many new EPA regulations and enforcement actions were caught up in litigation, with environmental groups like the Sierra Club often intervening, creating financial uncertainty for a company that provides energy to millions of Oklahomans.
Pruitt and others chalked up the Obama-era regulations to federal overreach into state matters that would drive up energy costs. He soon emerged as a vocal critic of "sue and settle," the environmentalist tactic of forcing the EPA to act through litigation. Ironically, his solution was more litigation: Pruitt joined the oil, gas and coal industries in 14 lawsuits against the EPA designed to block nearly all of the Obama administration's major environmental initiatives.
"Those that we regulate ought to know what we expect of them, so that they can plan and allocate resources to comply," Pruitt told his new employees yesterday. "That's really the job of the regulator, and the process we engage in."
Pruitt's statement echoes years of talking points emanating from conservatives, the industry and, most recently, President Trump. Republicans and pro-industry Democrats from fossil fuel-producing states say they want to work with the industry, not against it, so it's no surprise that Pruitt has risen through the ranks of the GOP after doing just that as a state attorney general.
Still, Pruitt is not quite the embodiment of transparency. During the confirmation process, he dodged questions from Senate Democrats, and his office appeared reluctant to release his emails to the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), the watchdog group that requested them under Oklahoma's public records law back in 2015.
Pruitt's office said it responds to requests in the order they are received, but last week, a judge ruled that Pruitt was in violation of Oklahoma's sunshine law, which requires the government to provide "prompt and reasonable" access to documents. The judge ordered that Pruitt turn over the emails on Tuesday, and his office complied shortly before the deadline.
"There is no valid legal justification for the emails we received last night not being released prior to Pruitt's confirmation vote other than to evade public scrutiny," said Arn Pearson, general counsel for CMD, in a statement.
Pearson said senators should have been able to review the documents before the confirmation vote. Now that Pruitt is firmly planted at the EPA's helm, it's unclear what impact they will have besides offering a lurid preview of the agency's future under the Trump administration.