Is Scott Pruitt’s EPA Violating Federal Ethics Laws?
Nick Surgey, Senior Fellow with the Center for Media and Democracy discusses California’s lawsuit against the EPA under the Freedom of Information Act and Scott Pruitt’s conflict of interest in his ties to the corporate elite’s climate denial group, ALEC
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. California’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, has filed a lawsuit against Trump administration EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. The lawsuit demands that Pruitt hand over documents regarding potential conflict of interest. Head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, until February 17th, served as Attorney General for Oklahoma and participated in numerous lawsuits against the EPA in which California supported the EPA. Now, these types of lawsuits and contestations have gone to a whole other level.
With Pruitt in the driver’s seat, the public has a right to know whether Administrator Pruitt and EPA are complying with federal ethics laws, says Attorney General Becerra of California. Further, he says that Mr. Pruitt’s numerous conflicts of interest merit close examination, now that he has taken a direct role in initiating views, numerous EPA regulations he sought to undo through litigation in his previous role. While Pruitt has said that he would recuse himself from cases where he’s sued the EPA as former Oklahoma Attorney General, his intent to abstain from rulemaking on the same issues is unclear.
But what is clear is that Scott Pruitt’s relationship with climate change denier organizations and in particular with oil billionaires like Charles and David Koch who supports the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, is extremely clear. You may know that this is the subject of a Real News produced full length documentary title, “The Doubt Machine: Inside the Koch Brothers War on Climate Science,” which clearly makes a link for you and you should watch that.
Anyway, with us today to discuss Pruitt’s ties to ALEX and deepening conflict of interest allegations, as he heads the EPA, we are joined by Nick Surgey, who is a Senior Fellow and an Investigative Reporter with the Center for Media and Democracy. His work has been featured in The Guardian, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. Nick, thank you so much for joining us today.
NICK SURGEY: Thanks, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: Nick, let’s start off by again reminding people about ALEC. Who it is, what it does, and what it was set up to do, by whom.
NICK SURGEY: Sure. ALEC has been around for a long time, actually. It was founded in the early 1970s, so long before the birth of the internet as a way of Republican legislators sharing ideas, sharing bills between each other. It very quickly became an organization that was funded by corporations, trade associations, and by big foundations that were often backed by corporate cash. Unfortunately, what that has done is it means that it’s become an organization that is really feeding the needs of those funders in terms of pushing legislation that benefits their bottom line.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right, and who are some of those corporate backers? Of interest, I know Koch brothers is one of them, but mention a few others so we can get a better picture of the conflict here we’re about to talk about.
NICK SURGEY: Sure. I mean, you’re right. The Kochs have been a major backer of ALEC for several decades, but on the fossil fuel side, they include really all of the major players. Companies like ExxonMobil have been backing ALEC in a leadership position within the organization for a very long time. You have a whole range of coal, oil, and gas companies, so Peabody Coal, for example, which is the world’s largest coal company, is a major backer of ALEC, and they’ve also participated in the ALEC corporate board for very many years.
But also, trade associations that represent those industries, so the American Petroleum Institute actually has been a funder of ALEC going back until the 1970s, as well as the Edison Electric Institute, which trade association for utilities industry, and all sorts of other corporations that have an interest in legislation being introduced at the state level.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, there has been discussion in the media that Pruitt’s gutting of the EPA from the inside, as scientists and others are coming out, being whistleblowers, talking about it. This of course silences the discussion on climate change and, of course, that Administrator Pruitt is at the behest of Trump administration, who’s proposing enrolling back of environmental rules in favor of industry, at the expense of say, public health, and then environmental issues. Give us a better sense of what that relationship is and how concrete are some of the ways in which Pruitt is gutting the EPA?
NICK SURGEY: Scott Pruitt has never really been a friend of the environment. During his time as Attorney General of the state of Oklahoma, he called himself a leading advocate against the Environmental Protection Agency. He filed 14 lawsuits challenging the EPA, including challenging the Clean Power Plan, which was really the central plan of the Obama era efforts to try and tackle climate change. It was a very limited rule. It was putting the US amongst the rest of the world in limiting its carbon pollution, but doing far less than countries in Europe, for example, would do. But it was a positive first step and Scott Pruitt brought a lawsuit against that rule.
He also brought a lawsuit against an Environmental Protection Agency rule called “Waters of the U.S.” What that was doing was expanding the scope of what the Environmental Protection Agency, waters that the Environmental Protection Agency would look at, in terms of pollution. This would have an impact on polluting manufacturers, the giant ag corporations that spill all sorts of nasty chemicals into bodies of water, so there were a number of corporations industries that were opposed to that rule.
Scott Pruitt sued, and part of the track record of Scott Pruitt and probably part of the reason that he was doing that is that he’s long been a very close friend of the coal, oil, and gas industry. When he was a state legislator even, back 20 years ago, he was sponsoring legislation that would financially benefit the industry in the state of Oklahoma, as we’ve already said, he was a member of ALEC. He participated not just as a legislator in ALEC, he was actually in a leadership position within the organization, and during his time as Oklahoma Attorney General, New York Times had this blockbuster story in 2014 about this, he would often put his name to letters, legal briefs, regulatory findings that were written by industries, literally written by industry.
They would send him the language and he would put his name on it and send it in, as if it’s his own work, and this is interesting because Scott Pruitt is not somebody who takes the world of climate scientists, people who devoted their lives to studying the effects of pollution on the environment and specifically on the climate, and yet he is without hesitation it seems, willing to put his name to language that’s drafted by industry lobbyists.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Break down some of the content of the emails and the controversy that’s going on related to the AG of California now suing the EPA and asking for Scott Pruitt’s documentation necessary for his potential conflict of interest. I know you didn’t really want to talk about it, but how is what you are uncovering relate to what’s going on at the moment in terms of this lawsuit?
NICK SURGEY: There’s a lot of efforts going on right now to try and figure out what’s happening with the Environmental Protection Agency. There are whistleblowers. There’s lots of people who are talking to the press, but it is proving very difficult to get information directly from the Environmental Protection Agency, and so under the previous administration, the Obama administration, the EPA Administrator routinely put her schedule up on the website, EPA website, so that people could see what the administrator was doing.
They’re a public official, they’re acting in public duties, why shouldn’t we know what they’re doing on public time? Not on their personal time, but when they’re acting as EPA Administrator, and Scott Pruitt reversed that. Not only that, but it is now proving very difficult to find out what he’s doing through FOIA. I have been told by EPA FOIA officers, I’ve been advised to try and refile requests so that they don’t go through the Administrator’s Office, because that is a surefire way of making sure I’m not going to get that information in a very long time.
There are various different efforts by reporters, by now the California Attorney General, by environmental groups, by many people to try and find out what is happening within the EPA. What is Scott Pruitt doing? What are these political appointees that he has brought into the agency, what are they up to? Who are they speaking with when they’re making these very important decisions that are going to have serious implications for the environment for decades to come? It’s very, very hard.
There have been lawsuits that have been filed and some of that will play out over time in the courts, but in the meantime, we don’t know a lot about what’s happening within the Environmental Protection Agency except what we’re hearing from whistle blowers. There was a troubling report that was in the New York Times this last week [I heard] by Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton that was talking about really a sense of paranoia that exists, it seems, within Scott Pruitt’s office. Locked doors into the Administrator’s Office. When people come for meetings with Scott Pruitt, they’re being escorted by security, by things not being written down, by emails.
It’s not only that people aren’t looped into emails, but apparently things are not put in email. Things are only written down by hand. It is proving very, very hard to find out who Scott Pruitt is communicating with, what he is doing, where in the country he’s going to, and that seems to be by design.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, give us a sense of what the greatest fear is of these people that are coming out of the EPA and concerns people have because of the connection to ALEC and what they are pushing for in a climate deniers and so on. What are some of the greatest fears that we have in terms of gutting of the EPA and the potential implications of that?
NICK SURGEY: Well, it’s taken a long time to reach the point where we finally in the United States have a rule that would limit pollution from coal fired power plants. It took us a long time to get to that point. The EPA was able to issue that rule under the Clean Air Act and there was a Supreme Court decision. Massachusetts EPA, that ruled that it was able, that it was within the scope of its jurisdiction to be able to issue that rule. We finally got to the point where that rule was issued, and now it’s gone, with the stroke of a pen.
Likewise with various other rules, after years in the works, having been needed for very much longer than that, but after years of people working diligently, scientists, policymakers working to try and get the rule right, they’ve just been done away with the stroke of a pen. I think the concern is twofold. It’s one that we have now the head of an agency tasked with protecting the environment in the interests of both leaving a safe, clean, healthy environment for future generations, but also because an unsafe, polluted environment has real consequences for people’s health.
Primarily, the people that get affected by polluting coal plants are the people that live around them, and that tends to be poorer people. It tends to be minorities that are living in those areas, and so there are real health consequences for these rules disappearing. The concern is that we have now the head of the Environmental Protection Agency who called himself a leading advocate against the Environmental Protection Agency, who sued the EPA, who is known to be very, very close to industry, and the concern is that as when he was Attorney General of Oklahoma, and he was found to be literally putting his name to things that were written by industry, the concern is that that is continuing, now that he’s the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and that it’s really the industry that’s pulling the strings.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. I thank you so much for joining us, Nick. There seems to be so much more that we can unravel and that we should be on guard in terms of the developments that … When you look at Washington, there’s a lot of still, reporting on email hacking and the Russian connections and so on and so on, and in the meantime, all of these kinds of things that are getting undone that we are talking about, at the EPA, which really puts people more at threat and the Trump administration is moving rapidly forward on those fronts, which is truly of concern. I thank you for joining us and for keeping an eye on this, and then looking forward to having you back.
NICK SURGEY: Thanks, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.