The Environmental Protection Agency has so far been unable to produce, and is now refusing to search for, any records that could back up Administrator Scott Pruitt's now-infamous television statement dismissing science identifying human-caused carbon dioxide emissions as the primary driver of climate change, according to briefs filed in a federal court on Tuesday.
President Trump chose Pruitt to run the EPA because the former Oklahoma attorney general had teamed up with the fossil fuel industry to challenge environmental regulations, including President Obama's landmark plan to cap climate-warming emissions from power plants. On March 9, just weeks after the Senate approved his nomination on a vote that closely followed party lines, Pruitt claimed there was "tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact" that carbon pollution has on climate during an interview on CNBC's "Squawk Box."
"I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there's tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it's a primary contributor to the global warming that we see," Pruitt said.
Shortly after his television appearance, a watchdog group representing employees at the EPA as well as other federal conservation agencies requested under the Freedom of Information Act that the EPA produce the agency records Pruitt had relied on to make his statement. The group also asked the EPA if it has any scientific studies, reports or guidance materials suggesting that human activity is not the largest factor driving climate change.
The EPA was able to provide "large amounts of archived material" on climate change that had been removed from the agency's website after Trump took office, but none of it backed up Pruitt's claims, according to a statement from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Instead, the materials "underscored the major role human activity plays in driving climate change."
"If Mr. Pruitt does indeed possess facts on climate change that are different from those previously displayed on EPA webpages, he should share them with the public before spending our money to stage a debate," said PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein.
The agency Pruitt now leads spent years gathering evidence linking carbon pollution from fossil fuels to climate change as part of the effort to meet international climate obligations and establish the regulations he wants to dismantle. By the time Pruitt took office, the government's lead environmental agency had already reached the same conclusion that the vast majority of climate scientists and world governments had reached: that carbon dioxide was the main greenhouse gas disrupting climates.
Much of that information has since been scrubbed from the EPA's website, and Pruitt is leading a charge to repeal Obama's Clean Power Plan for reducing carbon emissions in the United States.
PEER claims the EPA initially agreed to search for records to satisfy the group's request but failed to produce anything by the legal deadline, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court earlier this year. The EPA is now defending itself, arguing that PEER is "laying a trap" by asking officials to respond to an unnecessarily broad policy question rather than simply produce documents.
The Freedom of Information Act, the EPA argues, does not require the agency to take a "policy position" or spend endless hours digging through climate research in order to find evidence to support Pruitt's claims, according to a brief filed in a federal district court on Tuesday.
PEER says the EPA initially told the court it was prepared to search for any supporting documents compiled by Pruitt or members of his staff before the CNBC interview, but now objects to the request altogether.
"Our lawsuit is neither a trap nor a fishing expedition but a rather straightforward attempt to get Mr. Pruitt to identify where is the alternative science he keeps citing," stated Dinerstein, in a statement. "We presume that Administrator Pruitt must have had some factual basis for his public statements and we merely seek to see what it is."
The court could side with the EPA and decide that the request is a media stunt and throw out the lawsuit, but PEER appears to already have made its point: Scott Pruitt's climate denial is completely at odds with the prior work of his own agency, and he probably does not have a lot of scientific evidence to back up his positions on the subject.
The EPA is not the only government agency that has recognized the link between carbon pollution and the threat of climate disruption. President Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord and has called climate science into question, but his own military has long seen climate change as a national security threat.
On Tuesday, Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which calls climate change "a direct threat to the national security" that is "impacting stability" in areas of the world where US armed forces are operating or could be pulled into in the future. The legislation also requires that the Pentagon prepare a report on how climate change will impact military installations over the next 20 years.
The bill Trump signed into law is long -- it outlines funding for the entire military, as well as a number of policy items -- but critics are still wondering how the president missed a section that flies in the face of his own climate skepticism.
"The reality is that climate change couldn't care less about political party affiliation, which is why legislators on both sides of the aisle -- especially those on the frontlines of climate change impacts -- fought to retain this language in the final bill," said Angela Ledford Anderson, director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a statement.