Thousands of newly released emails show the close, casual relationship between the oil and gas industry and new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who in his former role at Oklahoma attorney general led the legal fight to derail many of the pollution regulations opposed by the energy industry.
None of the communications, most of which were sent by Pruitt’s staff in 2013 and 2014, appear to reveal any illegal activities, and Pruitt’s alliance with fossil fuel companies and conservative groups like the Koch-connected Americans for Prosperity has been public knowledge for years. But they do underscore the dramatic shift EPA is likely to see under Pruitt, who on Tuesday told EPA employees in his first address as administrator that “regulators exist to give certainty to those that they regulate.”
And many of the regulations discussed in the emails still sit before EPA today, putting them squarely in Pruitt’s lap.
The release of the emails was ordered by a state judge last week, and the more than 7,500 pages were made public just days after the Senate confirmed Pruitt to head the agency in a mostly party-line vote that Democrats had sought to delay.
“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 the Center for Media and Democracy, the group that asked for the communications two years ago. “There are hundreds of emails between the AG’s office, Devon Energy and other polluters that senators should have been permitted to review prior to their vote to assess Pruitt’s ties to the fossil fuel industry.”
A spokesman for the state attorney general’s office said on Wednesday that some of these emails had been released previously to The New York Times, which cited them in a 2014 story on Pruitt’s “secretive alliance” with oil and gas companies. He referred POLITICO to a Tuesday statement saying the AG’s office went “above and beyond” the state’s open records law in releasing so many communications.
Pruitt’s closest ally energy sector appears to be Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy, one of the largest oil producers in the U.S. and which authored a letter on methane emissions that Pruitt largely copied and sent to EPA.
The new emails show several communications between Pruitt’s staff and Devon, in particular Bill Whitsitt, formerly the company’s executive vice president for public affairs. Whitsitt, now retired, sent a draft letter to Pruitt aides in May 2013 that he hoped would be sent by a bipartisan group of attorneys general to EPA to counter to a petition from Northeastern states seeking tighter methane regulations.
“It would be a shot across the bow, warning EPA not to go down a negotiated-rulemaking or wink-at-sue-and-settle tee-up process,” Whitsitt wrote.
“It seems to me this would also be a logical outgrowth of the fossil energy AGs meeting and could be powerful with a number of signers. It is also the kind of thing that in the future could be run through the clearinghouse we discussed,” he added, in apparent reference to the alliance The New York Times story cited in 2014.
In May 2013, Pruitt’s deputy solicitor general, Clayton Eubanks asked Whitsitt for feedback on a draft letter to EPA regarding methane emissions. Eubanks specifically asked for advice on incorporating an EPA report that found initial estimates of methane emissions from certain source categories was too high.
Whitsitt responded with various suggested changes, including some that were “improvements from one of our experts.” Neither of Whitsitt’s documents with suggested improvements were included in the released emails.
A month later, in June 2013, Whitsitt wrote to Pruitt’s chief of staff, Melissa Houston, to thank her for including him in a meeting that day with Pruitt. “I think we got to a good place with respect to the clearinghouse concept to assist AGs in addressing federalism issues,” he wrote, again referencing the alliance.
Houston responded: “I am very excited about this project moving forward and feel that we are on the right track. This will be an amazing resource for the AGs and for industry. I so appreciate you providing your expertise and guidance as we move forward.”
Whitsitt also replied to Eubanks’ questions on the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed fracking rule. Whitsitt noted the White House was reviewing the proposal, “hence our asks that calls be made to the head of OMB and/or OIRA pretty quickly.” He included a leaked copy of the BLM proposal.
Brent Rockwood, another top Devon executive, in July 2013 followed up on an attorneys general letter regarding the fracking rule, Devon’s legal team had recommended including footnotes to source facts and legal arguments, Rockwood wrote.
“Thanks for putting the AG letter into action, and I think that this letter will make a strong statement and a real difference. Do you think that we will get any Democrats to sign the letter?” he asked.
Devon was not the only company to benefit from working with Pruitt. Stuart Solomon, the president of AEP’s utility subsidiary Public Service Company of Oklahoma, wrote to Pruitt in February 2014 thanking him for helping the company deal with EPA on a regional haze issue.
“Your lawsuit against EPA, and your encouragement of our efforts to settle this issue in a way that benefits the state, were instrumental in giving us the time and the opportunity to develop a revised state plan,” thus avoiding an EPA-imposed federal plan, Solomon wrote.
In August 2013, Peter Glaser, a Washington attorney from the law firm Troutman Sanders who represented Arizona in a haze lawsuit, sent Pruitt’s office a rough draft of a friend-of-the-court brief on that issue. Glaser sought to make sure his brief and one being prepared by Pruitt’s office did not duplicate arguments, and he asked for advice on other arguments to make.
Pruitt also waded into ethanol issues in summer 2013.
Rich Moskowitz, general counsel for American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, briefed Puitt’s aides on the Renewable Fuel Standard, which Eubanks wrote has “obvious shortcomings and problems.” AFPM and the American Petroleum Institute at the time were preparing to ask EPA for a waiver from the congressionally required mandates because of concerns the amount of ethanol required by law could not be blended into the gasoline expected to be sold in 2014.
Moskowitz urged Pruitt to file his own waiver request pushing the argument that high ethanol blending mandates would cause “severe environmental harm” because “this argument is more credible coming from a state” that has to meet national air quality standards.
EPA did ultimately ease the corn ethanol mandate for the first time when it issue a rule covering 2014, although it cited distribution concerns, not potential environmental harm.
CMD said it plans to ask the judge reviewing the case to verify that Pruitt’s private email address is searched as well after a redacted address for Pruitt was copied on several emails. Pruitt told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing that he does not use his personal address for work.
More communications from subsequent CMD records requests are expected next week.
Anthony Adragna, Annie Snider, Esther Whieldon and Nick Juliano contributed to this story.