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EPA went soft on Oklahoma-based oil and gas companies with Scott Pruitt as head, study finds

As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt had a close relationship with top natural gas producers.

Natural gas is burned off as three well heads pump waste water and oil January 27, 2016 near Stillwater, Oklahoma. CREDIT: J Pat Carter/Getty Images
Natural gas is burned off as three well heads pump waste water and oil January 27, 2016 near Stillwater, Oklahoma. CREDIT: J Pat Carter/Getty Images

Environmental groups are urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to look into whether Oklahoma-based oil and gas companies were given special treatment when Scott Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general and state lawmaker, served as head of the agency.

The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), Sierra Club, and Environment Texas sent a letter to EPA Assistant Administrator Susan Bodine on Monday to express concern about the EPA’s handling of Clean Air Act violations by oil and gas companies in Oklahoma. In their letter, the groups cited a new EIP report that found unequal treatment of oil and gas companies based on where they are headquartered.

Researchers at EIP looked at six different oil and gas companies that had violated the Clean Air Act, three of which are based in Oklahoma. According to the report, the three Oklahoma-headquartered companies have yet to be penalized for their Clean Air Act violations. Three companies based in other states that committed similar violations have, under both the Obama and Trump administrations, been cumulatively fined millions of dollars and are spending more than $100 million in total on clean-up costs, the researchers found.

“We respectfully request that you exercise your authority, and demonstrate that Oklahoma corporations are not subject to a more relaxed ‘rule of law’ than the one that applies to their competitors,” officials with the three environmental groups wrote in their letter to Bodine.

Over the last three years, the EPA penalized three non-Oklahoma oil and gas companies — Noble Energy of Texas, PDC Energy of Colorado, and Slawson Energy of Kansas — a combined $9.55 million for air pollution violations. The companies also signed consent decrees that required them to spend a total of $146 million on cleanup and environmental mitigation efforts. The mitigation measures are expected to reduce more than 20,000 tons of air pollution per year, EIP found in its research.

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In its review of EPA records for three Oklahoma-based companies — Devon Energy, Chesapeake Energy, and Gulfport Energy — EIP found that they received violation notices for methane leaks at their facilities.

In December 2016, the EPA issued a notice of violation to Chesapeake Energy and Gulfport Energy for similar illegal emissions releases at their oil and gas facilities. The agency has yet to take any follow-up enforcement action to fine Chesapeake Energy and Gulfport Energy since the notices of violations were sent more than 18 months ago.

Last December, the EPA notified Devon Energy that agency inspections aerial surveillance had discovered violations of emission control requirements for tanks and flares serving multiple well drilling sites in the Eagle Ford Shale region in south Texas. In February, the company entered into an administrative settlement with the EPA that required no penalties but did include “vaguely worded commitments that will be difficult to enforce,” EIP said.

“Environmental laws should be enforced equally for everyone in all states,” Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said Tuesday in a statement. “It looks as though EPA, under Administrator Pruitt, may have been going easy on Oklahoma-based oil and gas companies. If that’s true, the new administrator should fix that problem immediately.”

Source: Environmental Integrity Project
Source: Environmental Integrity Project

In response to the EIP report, the EPA said it will continue to make enforcement decisions based on the facts and circumstances of each case.

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“We have seen the EIP report and would observe that it contains significant factual errors and omissions that EPA is not at liberty to correct because of the enforcement confidential nature of our impartial work,” EPA spokesperson John Konkus said Tuesday in an statement emailed to ThinkProgress.

EIP countered that its report is based entirely on public records — court-approved consent decrees and EPA violation notice documents — not on confidential sources or material. If there is an error in the report, the EPA could correct it by pointing to the public record, the group said.

“The fact that they refuse to specify any alleged errors in our report makes me doubt their complaint has substance,” EIP spokesperson Tom Pelton said Tuesday in an email to ThinkProgress. “It could be that EPA is planning to eventually take some enforcement actions against these Oklahoma-based companies, which would be good. We are just pointing out that this hasn’t happened yet and it’s been a while.”

EIP hopes the agency takes enforcement actions against the three Oklahoma companies that are comparable to the millions of dollars in penalties it imposed on oil and gas companies from other states that were responsible for similar air pollution violations, Pelton said.

Prior to taking over as EPA administrator, Pruitt served as Oklahoma’s attorney general, a position in which he worked on behalf of oil and gas companies in the state, especially Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy.

For example, Devon Energy emailed Pruitt a draft letter in 2011 that the company hoped he would send to the EPA opposing a federal effort to limit methane gas leaks from drilling operations. After changing a few words and putting it on his own letterhead, Pruitt sent the Devon Energy-drafted letter to the EPA as official correspondence from the Oklahoma attorney general’s office.

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Two years later, a top lobbyist at Devon Energy sent Pruitt’s office a draft letter objecting to recently proposed federal regulations on fracking. Two months later, in August 2013, Pruitt signed a nearly identical version of that letter and sent it to then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. The only difference was the addition of the attorney general’s official letterhead and a paragraph citing additional legal precedent to back up the letter’s arguments against federal regulations on fracking.

Devon Energy’s close relationship with Pruitt appeared to carry over into his time as EPA administrator. Before President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, Devon Energy was prepared to install a system to detect and reduce leaks of gases and had discussed paying a six-figure penalty to resolve the EPA enforcement action alleging Clean Air Act violations at a Wyoming gas plant.

But with Pruitt expected to take over as EPA administrator, the company reportedly decided those expenditures would be unnecessary.

“Five days after Scott Pruitt took office in February of 2017, the company informed EPA that it was ‘re-evaluating its settlement posture,’ and was no longer willing to install emissions controls or pay a large fine,” the report says, citing a New York Times article. “More than 15 months later, the case apparently remains unresolved.”

The EIP report, “Clean Air Act Violations at Six Oil & Gas Companies: EPA’s Enforcement Benefits Oklahoma-based Corporations,” also highlights how in December 2016, the EPA notified Chesapeake Energy and Gulfport Energy — both headquartered in Oklahoma — that their storage tanks were releasing illegal amounts of smog-forming pollutants.

After sending letters to the two companies in December 2016 alleging violations of the Clean Air Act, the EPA has yet to take any follow-up enforcement action to fine Chesapeake Energy or Gulfport Energy or require them to install new equipment that would prevent the release of toxins, according to the report.

Texas-based Noble Energy, on the other hand, paid $4.9 million for its past violations of the Clean Air Act. PDC Energy, based in Colorado agreed to pay $2.5 million in penalties, while Slawson Energy, based in Kansas, paid $2.1 million in total federal penalties for violating the Clean Air Act on tribal lands.

Devon Energy contends that the cases cited by EIP in its report are dissimilar in many ways. Based on Devon Energy’s years-long process to resolve the compliance issues mentioned by EIP, “it’s difficult to imagine these six different situations are in any way comparable,” Devon Energy spokesperson John Porretto said Tuesday in an email to ThinkProgress.

Devon Energy reached a settlement agreement with the EPA in February on compliance with air-quality regulations at its Eagle Ford Shale operations. This agreement was the result of discussions that began with the EPA in December 2015, long before the current administration took office in 2017, Porretto said.

Under Devon’s control, the environmental performance of the Eagle Ford facilities has improved significantly, Porretto said. Devon and its joint-interest partner have invested more than $50 million in technical improvements and equipment upgrades to reduce production-facility emissions.

“The time, effort, and investment Devon made to ensure compliance of our Eagle Ford assets was taken into consideration by the EPA in reaching the settlement agreement,” he said.