What does it take to get an interview with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt? Increasingly, it seems that answer depends on the ideological affiliation the would-be interviewer represents.
For the past few weeks, Pruitt has been engaged in a “listening” tour throughout the country, aimed at engaging local stakeholders in the administration’s proposed repeal and rewrite of the Obama administration’s Clean Water Rule. But for local media, securing access to Administrator Pruitt during the tour has proved a difficult task, with city and state newspapers from Colorado to South Carolina reporting a marked lack of transparency — and in at least one case, overt threats — when Pruitt came to town.
But for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which spent $117,375 in lobbying last year, getting an interview with Pruitt was apparently not a problem, with the administrator appearing in a recent video for the organization’s policy arm, Beltway Beef.
In the video, Pruitt uses industry talking points to incorrectly state that the Obama administration rule redefined federally-regulated waters as a “puddle, a dry creek bed, and ephemeral drainage ditches across the country.” In reality, the 2015 rule, which sought to clarify which waters fall under protection of the Clean Water Act, redefined federal waters as anything having a “significant nexus” to navigable waters — that definition included things like wetlands or seasonal streams, but not puddles.
Pruitt then goes on to ask farmers and ranchers to provide comment on the repeal of the Clean Water Act, saying that the record of comments is “so important because it helps” EPA make informed decisions. The video then provides a link to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s website, where viewers can leave comments for the EPA. The EPA is currently in the public comment period for its plan to rescind the Clean Water Rule; that period ends on August 28.
The National Cattleman’s Beef Association has long been an outspoken critic of the Clean Water Rule, stating on its website that “NCBA has helped lead the charge against the Obama-era Waters of the U.S. rule.” Big agribusiness, in general, has been staunchly opposed to the rule, arguing that it would create more regulatory burden for small and mid-size farmers which might need to seek government permission before digging drainage ditches on their land, for instance. Agriculture, however, was granted an exemption under the Clean Water Act for things like plowing, maintenance of drainage ditches, and construction and maintenance irrigation ditches on dry land, and the Waters of the United States rule continued those exemptions.
Government ethics experts criticized Pruitt’s appearance in the video, arguing that it raises questions about the objectivity and open-mindedness of the agency as it embarks on the rule-making process. Jeffrey Lubbers, a specialist in administrative law at American University’s Washington College of Law, told E&E News that the video could raise questions about whether the EPA might value certain comments over others; former EPA officials have already alleged that Pruitt and political appointees at the agency tend to favor comments from industry rather than comments from the general public or environmental groups.
Ed Frank, a spokesman for the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, told E&E News that the video was simply part of Pruitt’s general outreach campaign around the issue, and that there was no “specific agenda out there.” He added that environmental groups could also ask members and interested parties to submit comments for or against rescinding the rule. Under the Obama administration, the EPA received criticism from Republican lawmakers and industry groups for soliciting comments in support of the rule through environmental groups on Twitter. Eventually, the Government Accountability Office found the agency guilty of “covert propaganda” and “grassroots lobbying.”
Making a video for a lobbying group asking for comments on a rule might not qualify as grassroots lobbying, though Pruitt’s engagement with a very particular band of media outlets will undoubtedly continue to raise questions about the administrator’s relationship with the media.
In his first seven months as administrator, Pruitt has shown a marked preference for conservative outlets like Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and conservative talk radio shows — places that are both ideologically aligned with his deregulatory push and unlikely to press him with tough questions during an interview. According to Media Matters for America, Pruitt has given more interviews to Fox News than any other major cable news channel combined, appearing on Fox twelve times between when he was sworn in in February and early August. He has also given eight interviews to conservative talk radio shows like The Hugh Hewitt Show and Breitbart News Daily, all of which have a long history of climate denial (something that Pruitt shares).
When asked by E&E News whether the EPA had cleared Pruitt’s interview with the policy arm of a lobbying group, an EPA spokesperson reportedly responded that “it’s absurd that E&E thinks we need their permission on what media outlets we can accept interview requests from.”
But for an EPA administrator that has operated under an unprecedented level of secrecy since coming into office, the interview requests he grants offer a glimpse into Pruitt’s priorities — shunning local media in deference to conservative and fringe outlets unlikely to challenge his authority.