Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt was personally involved in the purging of information from the agency’s website in the early months of the Trump administration, according to documents obtained by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
Soon after President Donald Trump took office, pages on the EPA’s website about climate change started disappearing or getting redirected to sites touting the president’s fossil fuel agenda. Along with webpages about climate change and climate science, the purge removed the agency’s webpage about the Clean Power Plan, the signature Obama administration effort to curb carbon emissions from power plants and one that Pruitt is now attempting to repeal, the environmental group said Monday in a news release.
“Obscuring information thwarts meaningful public participation in EPA’s work to protect Americans’ health and safety. It reinforces serious concerns that Pruitt has predetermined that he will repeal the Clean Power Plan, and that the current rulemaking process is a sham,” EDF attorney Ben Levitan said in a statement.
EDF discovered Pruitt’s direct involvement in the removal of the webpages in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for documents about changes to the EPA’s website pertaining to climate and air quality. In August, in a separate records batch, the environmental group received more than 1,900 climate-related web pages and files that had been removed from or modified on the EPA’s website.
Among the documents released by EDF on Monday is an email which shows J.P. Freire, then serving as Pruitt’s associate administrator for public affairs, writing to colleagues on April 28, 2017: “We would like the content at the links below removed and archived as soon as possible.” The webpage titles included “Climate Change, “Climate Change Science,” “Climate Change Impacts,” and “Student’s Guide to Global Climate Change.” Each of these webpages still directs the user to a page that states “this page is being updated.”
“We appreciate your assistance in this time-sensitive manner,” said Freire.
The Clean Power Plan purge included the elimination of access to fact sheets about greenhouse gas emissions at the state and local levels and how different demographic groups were affected by such emissions. At the time, the EPA said the website changes involved “updating language to reflect the approach of new leadership,” including Trump’s views on “climate and regulation.”
In response to the environmental group’s FOIA request, records are being released on a rolling basis, and EDF is analyzing and releasing them as it gets them, spokeswoman Sharyn Stein said. EDF is posting all of the documents it receives from the FOIA request on its “Promoting Government Transparency” webpage.
In a statement emailed to ThinkProgress on Monday, the EPA said it is constantly updating its website to reflect new initiatives and projects of the agency. “Of course the site will be reflective of the current administration’s priorities. With that said, all the content from the previous administration is still easily accessible and publicly available through the banner across the top of our website,” EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox said.
According to EDF, while the removed webpages may still be accessible through various EPA archives, they are a poor substitute. They do not appear in a search of the EPA website. “The website purge fits Pruitt’s troubling pattern of ruling EPA under a cloak of secrecy, which is no way to run an agency entrusted with protecting the public health and environment,” the group said.
Earlier this month, the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI), a nonprofit government watchdog group, released a report that concluded the EPA’s removal and ongoing overhaul of its climate change website “raises strong concerns about loss of access to valuable information for state, local, and tribal governments, and for educators, policymakers, and the general public.”
In November, seven Democratic senators wrote a letter to Pruitt asking that the previous “Climate and Energy Resources for State, Local, and Tribal Governments” website be returned and that an explanation for the initial removal be provided. The EPA has not responded to the letter, according to EDGI.
In the latest batch of emails, EDF found that last spring one of Pruitt’s advisers asked EPA staffers in the agency’s public affairs office how quickly they could launch a website on Trump’s energy independence executive order. The administrator wanted to redirect the website for the EPA’s Clean Power Plan to the energy independence website.
“How close are we to launching this on the website? The Administrator would like it to go up ASAP. He also has several other changes that need to take place,” Lincoln Ferguson, a senior adviser to Pruitt, asked in a email sent to the public affairs office in April 2017. Freire responded: “You can tell him we … are just finishing up.”
Ferguson responded: “Can it happen today?” He added in a subsequent email, “Just asking because he is asking.”
According to the emails obtained by EDF, Freire was emphatic that all Clean Power Plan references should link to the new page about Trump’s executive order. In a discussion about the new page, Freiere wrote: “This looks great, and should be on the page for the Clean Power Plan. Any reference to the Clean Power Plan, any link to it, should redirect here.”
When it was revealed in April that the EPA was removing climate change information from its website, lawmakers quickly expressed concern. At the time, Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA), co-chair of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, noted that the Trump administration is engaging in censorship where “certain phrases and words cannot be used in research or in government documents with respect to the Paris agreement or climate change or greenhouse gases.”
“This is Stalin science,” Connolly said, referring to a program during Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s rule where more than 3,000 scientists were persecuted as part of a campaign to suppress his scientific opponents.
The emails obtained by EDF also suggest EPA staff were directed to manipulate search results, the environmental group said. Website visitors searching for information about the Clean Power Plan would be diverted to the page promoting Trump’s executive order, instead of what they were actually looking for.
In one conversation, an EPA staff member stated, “I’ve been asked about search results for the term ‘Clean Power Plan.’” A colleague responded: “We can make the Energy Independence homepage a ‘Best Bet’ and thus the first result for Clean Power Plan for our EPA Search engine if you request it.”