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Utah drillers struck gold with Pruitt’s EPA

Fossil fuel lobbyists helped Republican state lawmakers gain access to the EPA, new documents shows.

An oil drilling rig operates on May 10, 2017 outside Richfield, Utah. CREDIT: George Frey/Getty Images
An oil drilling rig operates on May 10, 2017 outside Richfield, Utah. CREDIT: George Frey/Getty Images

The appointment of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt brought oil and gas drillers in Utah relief after years of lobbying. Newly released emails show that industry insiders connected Pruitt to Republican Utah lawmakers, seemingly spurring a shift in policy that favored fossil fuel companies over environmental and health concerns in the state.

The president of the energy lobbying firm National Environmental Strategies, Marc Himmelstein, set up a phone call between Pruitt and several Utah lawmakers in July 2017, according to documents obtained by the Sierra Club under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). At the time, smog and pollution plaguing tribal land in Utah’s Uinta Basin was stirring alarm, with the EPA likely to restrict potential drilling for oil and gas in the area.

Utah Republicans pushed back hard on that possibility. Himmelstein, a former executive for the American Petroleum Institute, worked with House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and supplied him talking points to use during the phone call with Pruitt, Politico first reported Tuesday. The outlined key areas to address included asking the EPA “to develop a streamlined permitting solution for future development of the Basin,” thereby freeing companies from having to individually gain approval prior to drilling.

“We need your help,” Himmelstein wrote to Pruitt’s chief of staff Ryan Jackson and former White House energy special assistant Mike Catanzaro in June 2017. “The Uinta Basin in Northeast Utah (Rob Bishop’s district) is going to be listed as an ozone non-attainment area later this year. It is a prolific oil and gas producing area that encompasses state, tribal and federal lands.”

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According to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, oil and gas development has sparked air and water quality issues, in addition to drilling waste management concerns. But in April 2018, months after the phone call between EPA staff and Utah lawmakers, oil and gas interests in the state got what they had wanted for years: the EPA signed proposed amendments to 2016 federal regulations for natural gas emissions on tribal land.

A spokesperson for Bishop downplayed the exchange, which is not believed to be collusion but is rather a reflection of lobbying tactics in Washington.

“This is an issue that dates back many years. The Chairman had numerous similar conversations with Pruitt’s predecessor, Gina McCarthy. The issue has not been resolved and Chairman Bishop continues to advocate for reasonable regulatory reforms that will protect and enhance the lives of the people of Utah’s first congressional district,” the spokesperson said, according to Politico.

Jackson, Pruitt’s aide, meanwhile argued to the publication that stricter emissions regulations on tribal lands would be “unfair.”

That sentiment isn’t widely shared by environmentalists. Utah has suffered from air quality problems for years, with oil and gas drilling cited as a significant factor. The issue has increased the risk of heart attacks for many residents, in addition to driving up pneumonia cases and accelerating fatalities.

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In May, the EPA gave the state three years to reverse that trend after finding seven counties in violation of national standards for the air pollutant ozone. But the situation has been a complicated one, especially in the Uinta Basin, where around 80 percent of oil and gas sources are owned either by tribes or the federal government.

Environmental advocates argue that the EPA and other federal agencies haven’t done enough to curb pollution and emissions in the area. Around 3,000 new oil wells could come to the Uinta Basin through a proposal currently under review by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is housed within the Department of the Interior. The Environmental Defense Fund and other groups have argued that the plan could drive up emissions in the vulnerable area and pushed the government to intervene.

But as the documents released to the Sierra Club show, emails sent to the Trump administration officials by lobbyists indicate that fossil fuel companies have not taken lightly to the possibility of further regulations, well before issues like the current BLM review ever came into play.

Himmelstein, who connected Utah Republicans with Pruitt, has close ties to nuclear and coal plants, in addition to the oil and gas industry. He also has a lengthy lobbying history that has sparked ethics questions in the past. It follows, moreover, that his emails to EPA staff are likely to deepen questions surrounding Pruitt’s ties to lobbyists. The EPA administrator has enjoyed close relationships with industry insiders and he has shown a lopsided preference for such groups since assuming his position.

But the Trump administration’s actions in Utah stretch beyond the EPA. Documents obtained last March via FOIA showed Utah lawmakers played a key role in swaying Interior Department officials to downsize national monuments in the state. Native tribes slammed the decision to scale back both Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante and subsequently sued the White House.