In his previous role as Oklahoma’s attorney general, the Environmental Protection Agency’s new administrator regularly huddled with fossil fuel firms and electric utilities about how to combat federal environmental regulations and spoke to conservative political groups about what they call government”overreach,” according to thousands of pages of emails released Wednesday.
“The newly released emails reveal a close and friendly relationship between Scott Pruitt’s office and the fossil fuel industry, with frequent meetings, calls, dinners and other events,” said Nick Surgey, research director for the Center for Media and Democracy, which has sued to compel the release of the emails.
The emails highlight an often-chummy relationship between Pruitt’s office and Devon Energy, a major oil and gas exploration and production company based in Oklahoma City. The correspondence makes clear that top officials at the company met often with Pruitt or people who worked for him. Devon representatives also helped draft -- and re-draft -- letters for Pruitt to sign and send federal officials in an effort to stave off new regulations.
“Any suggestions?” an official in Pruitt’s office wrote to a Devon executive in May 2013, in reference to a letter the office was planning to send to the EPA regarding proposed regulations of methane emissions.
“Here you go,” the executive, Bill Whitsitt replied. “Please note that you could use just the red changes, or both red and blue (the latter being some further improvements from one of our experts) or none.”
Oklahoma has turned over thousands of pages of emails between former attorney general Scott Pruitt’s office and the energy industry, meeting a deadline set by a judge who ordered the documents’ release following more than two years of effort by an advocacy organization.
The Center for Media and Democracy, which went to court to compel the state to release the emails under public records laws, said Wednesday that they offer more details about the close ties that Pruitt, now administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has long had with the oil and gas industry.
Specifically, the organization noted an effort by one lobbying group to coordinate opposition in 2013 to a federal program requiring that transportation fuel sold in the United States contain a certain amount of renewable fuels. Its rationale was that arguments against the measure would be “more credible coming from a state.”
Some of the emails also show a close relationship with Devon Energy, a major oil and gas exploration and production company based in Oklahoma City. Much of the correspondence revolves around arranging speaking engagements, obtaining contact information for people at the federal Office of Management and Budget and coordinating letter-writing efforts.
At one point, Pruitt’s then-chief of staff, Melissa Houston, wrote in a Jan. 9, 2013, email to William Whitsitt, Devon’s vice president for public affairs, “You are so amazingly helpful!!! Thank you so much!!!”
In another email chain on March 21, 2013, Whitsitt writes to Pruitt’s office offering a draft of a letter that state attorneys general might sign and send to the then-acting EPA administrator regarding limits on methane emissions. Devon, which has substantial shale gas and shale oil drilling operations, would have been affected by the rule.
“Attached is a potential first-cut draft of a letter a (bipartisan if possible?) group of AGs might send to the acting EPA administrator and some others in the Administration in response to the NE states’ notice of intent to sue for more E&P emission regulation,” Whitsitt wrote. “It would be a shot across the bow, warning EPA not to not go down a negotiated-rulemaking or wink-at-a sue-and-settle tee-up process.”
The company vice president gave strategic advice, too. “If sent, I’d suggest that it be made public, at least to the Hill and to policy community publications,” he 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. Please let me know what you and General Pruitt think, or if we can help further.”
That same month, Whitsitt also offered a draft of a letter for Pruitt to sign about the federal Bureau of Land Management’s revised proposal of a rule on hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique that has helped U.S. companies like Devon sharply expand output and profits. Following up on his conversations with Pruitt, Whitsitt suggested a meeting “or perhaps more efficient, a conference call” with OMB officials.
“The attached draft letter (or something like it that Scott if comfortable talking from and sending to the acting director to whom the letter is addressed) could be the basis for the meeting or call,” he wrote.
Pruitt’s chief of staff replied: “Thanks Bill - we will take a look and start working on a draft.”
Pruitt’s close ties to Devon Energy were first highlighted in 2014 by the New York Times, which reported that a letter ostensibly written by the attorney general alleging that the EPA overestimated air pollution from natural gas drilling was actually written by the company’s attorneys. “That’s actually called representative government in my view of the world,” Pruitt later said of the letter.
The emails’ release comes just days after Pruitt was confirmed as the EPA’s new leader. Senate Democrats and environmental groups made a last-minute push to delay his confirmation vote last week, contending that lawmakers - and the public - ought to be able to review his correspondence with industry officials before putting him in charge of safeguarding the nation’s environment. Republicans forged ahead anyway, and Pruitt was confirmed by a 52-to-46 vote.
In a statement Tuesday, the Oklahoma attorney general’s office said it “went above and beyond what is required under the Open Records Act and produced thousands of additional documents that, but for the Court’s order, would typically be considered records” outside the scope of the act. “This broad disclosure should provide affirmation that, despite politically motivated allegations, the Office of the Attorney General remains fully committed to the letter and spirit of the Open Records Act,” spokesman Lincoln Ferguson said.
The attorney general’s office withheld some documents as exempted or privileged and has asked Judge Aletia Haynes Timmons to review whether they should be released, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. Timmons also ordered Pruitt’s former office to hand over records related to five outstanding records requests by early next week.
After unsuccessfully seeking the release of Pruitt’s correspondence with fossil-fuel representatives under public records laws, the center filed suit over his refusal to turn over the documents and requested the expedited hearing that led to Timmons’s order on Thursday. In her ruling, the judge said there had been “an abject failure to provide prompt and reasonable access to documents requested.”
Pruitt sued the EPA more than a dozen times during the Obama administration, challenging the agency’s authority to regulate toxic mercury pollution, smog, carbon emissions from power plants and the quality of wetlands and other waters. During his tenure in Oklahoma, he dismantled a specialized environmental protection unit that had existed under his Democratic predecessor and established a “federalism unit” to combat what he called “unwarranted regulation and systematic overreach” by Washington.
These moves earned him widespread opposition from environmental activists but praise from fellow Republicans and industry representatives, who saw him as a friend to businesses and a staunch opponent of federal regulations they called unnecessary and burdensome.
On Tuesday, Pruitt addressed EPA employees for the first time as their new boss. He spoke of stepping back from the aggressive regulations of recent years and said there needn’t be a contradiction between environmental protection and energy production or job creation.
“We as an agency and we as a nation can be both pro-energy and jobs and pro-environment,” he said. “We don’t have to choose between the two.”
The Washington Post’s Chris Mooney and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.