What the new EPA chief’s emails mean for the West

The court-released exchanges show Scott Pruitt’s cozy relationship with oil and gas could impact energy development.

 

Oklahoma is a bit player as far as drilling on federal lands is concerned. The vast majority of federal oil and gas production takes place farther west in big public land states such as Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico. But as attorney general of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt took a leading role in trying to deter the Bureau of Land Management from developing a new rule to protect communities from pollution that comes from the increasingly widespread oil and gas production on federal lands.

Newly released emails show how an oil company coached that opposition. Oklahoma-based Devon Energy drafted an opposition letter for Pruitt to sign, coaxed his office to corral other state attorneys generals to sign on and prompted Pruitt to meet with a key White House office that serves as a gateway for major rules like the BLM’s 2015 Hydraulic Fracturing Rule.

The details of how Devon encouraged and facilitated Pruitt’s opposition to the BLM rule came from thousands of pages of emails to and from Pruitt’s office when he was attorney general. Those emails were released in response to a judge’s order, just days after Pruitt was confirmed as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. This trove of emails provides a window into the close relationship Pruitt had with the fossil fuel industry, particularly with Devon, as well as with conservative groups active on federal lands policy such as American Legislative Exchange Council. The emails were made public by the Center for Media and Democracy, an investigative watchdog group, which had filed a lawsuit claiming that Pruitt’s office violated the Oklahoma Open Records Act by failing to release emails the group had requested for more than two years. The emails confirm the picture of Pruitt’s cozy ties with industries revealed in a 2014 New York Times story. Another batch is due out early next month.

As Pruitt steps into the job as the nation’s top environmental cop, these emails raise questions about what kind of EPA administrator he will be and who he will listen to as he decides which environmental safeguards to undo. He has plans to rollback Obama administration regulations that have major implications for the West, such as EPA’s Clean Power Plan, designed to slash greenhouse gases from the electricity sector, and the Clean Water Rule. It would protect small streams, especially those that don’t run all year, which are particularly important in the arid West.

Attorney General Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma speaking at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference.
Gage Skidmore/Flickr user

The emails don’t appear to reveal any illegal activity by Pruitt or his staff, but provide insight into how Pruitt has worked hand-in-glove with industries that he now will regulate as EPA administrator.

A March 2013 email, for example, references a meeting between Pruitt and Devon where the company urged Pruitt to meet “right away” with the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Analysis, part of the Office of Management and Budget, about the BLM hydraulic fracturing rule. “The attached draft letter (or something like it that Scott if (sic) comfortable talking from and sending to the acting director to whom the letter is addressed) could be the basis for the meeting or call.”

A July 2013 email from Devon to the attorney general’s office says: “Thanks for putting the AG letter into action, and I think that this letter will make a strong statement and a real difference.” In August, Pruitt’s deputy attorney general responded to Devon, writing: “Thank you for your guidance and assistance in getting this letter out.”

Devon described its relationship with Pruitt as “consistent” with the company’s practice of working with policymakers to spur economic growth and a robust energy sector. “It would be indefensible for us to not be engaged in these important issues,” says Devon spokesman Tim Hartley.

In an email response to HCN, an EPA representative said: “Oklahoma is one of the largest oil and gas providers in the country. As attorney general, Administrator Pruitt consistently stood up for the state’s energy industry and other constituencies who sought representation to stop real-life harm that was occurring as a result of overreaching federal regulations and actions.” 

But environmental groups cautioned that Pruitt’s involvement with Devon in opposing the BLM fracking rule was alarming. “This shows just how much Scott Pruitt was willing to toady up to oil and gas companies, even on a rule that has little or no impact in Oklahoma,” says David Doniger, director of Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean air program.

It’s not surprising to learn that an energy company drafted letters for Oklahoma opposing the hydraulic fracturing rule, said Bob Abbey, a longtime career BLM official who headed the agency under President Barack Obama until 2012. He remembers that BLM sought Oklahoma’s input on the rule. Although Oklahoma is not a big BLM state, the agency oversees some drilling on federal and Indian lands.

“Oil and gas has one of the best lobbying efforts. They would reach out to whomever they trusted — whoever was willing to be an advocate. They’d find the most senior official and one who has the tenacity to pursue aggressive litigation,” Abbey said.

Still, Abbey said the prominent role Devon played in Pruitt’s fight against the BLM hydraulic fracturing rule is “disappointing.” The rule, Abbey says, was crafted to ensure the wells are designed safely, the public is informed about the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing and the enormous quantities of wastewater generated by hydraulic fracturing operations are disposed of properly. Abbey said the Pruitt emails reveal “policies are being made, not based on what is best for the American people but based upon who has the contacts in order to influence the outcome.”

Neither is it surprising to learn that a Republican attorney general had close ties to companies that are important for providing jobs and revenue in his state, said Jim Connaughton, who headed the White House Council on Environmental Quality under President George W. Bush. A key part of an attorney general’s job is to “zero in on constituent interests that affects consumers, businesses and households,” Connaughton said. Nor is it surprising that Pruitt was against new federal regulation: Republicans often argue to shift power away from Washington and to the states.

As far as an attorney general signing a letter drafted by a company, Connaughton says that’s business as usual in Washington, too: “Every interest group drafts proposed letters for elected officials to attach themselves to. Sometimes the letters get substantially rewritten, sometimes they’re signed verbatim. This occurs on both sides of the aisle.”

Connaughton also explained that it makes sense that Pruitt would weigh in on the BLM rule because although Oklahoma doesn’t have a lot of federal oil and gas development, the issue is important to Devon, which also has operations in Wyoming and New Mexico, big BLM states.

“I can see why that’s unusual but I don’t see that it’s odd. Devon is a major Oklahoma constituent. Republicans and Democrats in Oklahoma care a lot about the success and viability of the company. They employ a lot of people,” Connaughton said.

But Christy Goldfuss, who was President Barack Obama’s last head of the White House Council on Environmental Policy, says the emails show that Pruitt’s interest is protecting industry, not people. “Because of hydraulic fracturing, people across the country are terrified for own safety. For an attorney general to partner with industry to mettle in the affairs of other states is a huge question for someone who purports to stand up for states’ rights. He’s really just standing for industry at any expense.”

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington. 

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