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Trump's EPA chief let an oil company edit his emails

Trump’s EPA chief let an oil company edit his emails

In his new role as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott’s Pruitt’s job is to enforce rules that he’s been fighting — together with the oil and gas industry — for years. Pruitt became famous for fighting federal environmental regulation in Oklahoma when he was the state’s attorney general, and thousands of emails made public this week show he routinely collaborated with oil and gas companies in their efforts to buck the EPA and other agencies.

An earlier New York Times investigation from 2014 had revealed a “secret alliance” between Pruitt’s office and Devon Energy, an oil and gas company. Pruitt sent an official letter to the EPA with language that was nearly copied and pasted from a suggested draft from Devon Energy in 2011 about air pollution.

The more than 7,500 pages of emails released Tuesday show that this was not an isolated incident. Devon Energy and Pruitt’s office were routinely trading drafts of letters to federal agencies with each other and working very closely to fight federal environmental rules.

Why this matters depends on who you ask. The collaboration shows that Devon Energy had huge influence over the Oklahoma AG’s office, which was basically fighting these laws on its behalf. The AG’s office says that it’s part of its job to protect and stand up for Oklahoma industry, but environmental groups say the relationship shouldn’t be quite so cozy.

Pruitt’s ties to Devon extend beyond email exchanges. As Oklahoma Attorney General, he sued the EPA over its methane emissions regulation in 2016 along with American Petroleum Institute, of which Devon Energy is a member. API contributes money to the Republican Attorneys General Association of which Scott Pruitt was an executive committee member in 2014-2015. That lawsuit is still pending, and the EPA methane rule is still in effect.

Jack Lienke, a native Oklahoman and senior attorney at the Institute for Policy Integrity, a regulatory policy think tank at NYU, said the emails did not surprise him. “It’s hard to overstate the presence that the oil and gas industry has on Oklahoma politics and culture. You can see the Devon tower [the Devon Energy Center in Oklahoma City] from anywhere in the city.”

Here are a couple of examples the emails revealed.

Pushing back against fracking rules

In May of 2012, the Bureau of Land Management proposed a revision to the federal rule about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on public lands — its first revision since 1988, when the practice was not nearly as popular. After outcry from oil and gas companies, including Devon Energy, which was then working closely with the Oklahoma AG’s office, the bureau withdrew the proposed rule that same year.

In January 2013, Bill Whitsitt, a spokesman for Devon Energy, emailed Patrick Wyrick, Solicitor General at the Oklahoma AG’s Office, to thank him for his help fighting the rule.

“I just let General Pruitt know that BLM is going to propose a different version of its federal lands hydraulic fracturing rule thanks to input received – thanks for the help on this! We’ll see the new proposal sometime next week I believe and we’ll be back in touch on potential next steps,” the email from Whitsitt reads.

In February 2013, Whitsitt’s office emailed Melissa Houston, chief of staff at the AG’s office, with information about the “appropriate contact for AG Pruitt’s folks to use in requesting a meeting with the head of OMB’s [White House Office of Management and Budget] OIRA [Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs] or designee to visit about the BLM Rule.” The offices coordinated arranging calls and meetings with officials at the White House throughout 2013.

On March 6, 2013, Whitsitt sent Houston and Sarah Lenti, an outside political consultant hired by Pruitt’s office, a draft letter to send to OMB: “The attached draft letter (or something like it that Scott [is] comfortable talking from and sending to the acting director to whom the letter is addressed) could be the basis for the meeting or call.”

Houston responded, “Thanks Bill — we will look at it and start working on a draft.”

One week later, Houston sent another draft back to Whitsitt at Devon Energy asking for suggestions. Whitsitt responded, “Terrific! Thanks Melissa, and please thank General Pruitt …. I’m making sure some key players on the issue see Scott’s letter.”

Their team effort paid off; the final rule the bureau adopted in 2015 was more narrow in scope and gave the agency less oversight of oil and gas companies like Devon.

Editing a letter to the EPA on methane emissions

The offices collaborated on pushback against seven states that announced plans to sue the EPA for lack of methane regulation in 2012.

On May 1, 2013, Clayton Eubanks, Deputy Solicitor General, sent a draft letter for EPA about methane regulation to Whitsitt for his review.

That same day, Whitsitt responded with edits: “Here you go! Please note that you could use the red changes, or both red and blue (the latter being some further improvements from one of our experts) or none. Hope this helps. Thanks for all your work on this!”

In response to a request for comment on the emails, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office pointed to comments it made after the Times’ 2014 investigation: “The A.G.’s office seeks input from the energy industry to determine real-life harm stemming from proposed federal regulations or actions. It is the content of the request not the source of the request that is relevant.” The EPA did not respond for a request for comment.

Habibah Abass and Emmalina Glinskis contributed reporting.

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