Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt has triggered a wave of controversy in recent weeks for his extravagant travel, lobbyist-connected apartment, and favors to allies. But his problematic approach to the job, marked by an unabashed favoritism toward industry, stretches back much further.
This favoritism is starkly evident in Pruitt’s speaking schedule. He spent a substantial part of 2017 giving speeches to industry groups whose member companies are regulated by the federal agency he oversees. Officials with oil and gas companies and big agriculture — two of the most polluting industries in the nation — were Pruitt’s most frequent audiences.
During his first 10 months as administrator, Pruitt gave more than 30 speeches to industry groups and companies regulated by the EPA. Nine of the speeches were delivered to oil and gas companies and trade groups and seven were given to industrial farming groups, according to a ThinkProgress analysis of documents obtained by the Environmental Integrity Project.
From February to November 2017, Pruitt, the nation’s top environmental official, did not give a single speech to an environmental or public health group during that 10-month period.
Through his choice of speaking engagements, Pruitt has demonstrated his policy and political priorities: undermining environmental law and promoting far-right politics. By speaking at an event where opposing viewpoints are not permitted, Pruitt intrinsically offers his stamp of approval on that group’s agenda.
His handful of meetings with environmental, conservation, and public health groups have been private affairs where he can simply listen to their concerns and is not bound to express an opinion or face public embarrassment from experts who disagree with his tenure at the EPA.
The polluting industries represented at his speaking engagements are the “stakeholders” Pruitt often mentions in speeches and testimony. During his time as Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt enjoyed a close relationship with fossil fuel companies and other polluting industries.
In 2014, The New York Times broke a story showing that Pruitt had taken a letter written by Devon Energy lawyers and sent it to the EPA on state letterhead, essentially acting as an official voice for one of his state’s biggest polluters.
Pruitt has only strengthened those industry ties since becoming EPA administrator. For example, his relationship with an energy lobbyist from his days in Oklahoma — Steven Hart, chairman and CEO of Williams and Jensen PLLC — carried over to his time as EPA administrator, raising potential ethics violations. In 2017, Pruitt rented a luxury apartment near the U.S. Capitol, co-owned by the lobbyist’s wife, at a below-market rate.
“Pruitt meets and speaks frequently with industry groups — but not public health or environmental advocates — and then makes decisions that benefit only industry, while ignoring the broader American public he’s supposed to serve,” Mary Greene, deputy director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said in a statement.
Scott Pruitt’s Energy Industry Speeches
Pruitt often describes the rules and precautionary measures demanded by environmental and public health groups as unnecessary because they are akin to “putting up fences” around the areas where natural resources could be harvested. His opinion of environmental groups as one-dimensional in their goals has virtually disqualified them from discussions at the EPA under the Trump administration.
Pruitt’s belief in the decency of industry is evident in his schedule of speeches.
It’s not unusual for an EPA administrator’s schedule to have a partisan bent; administrators are, after all, political appointees, and their priorities are bound to reflect those of the president. Under the Obama administration, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy often took meetings with environmental advocacy groups.
But unlike Pruitt, McCarthy also took meetings with industry groups that weren’t supportive of proposed regulations. In the lead-up to the release of the final Clean Power Plan rule, for instance, the EPA conducted meetings with industry stakeholders, like the American Public Power Association, to solicit their input.
“She was very conscious of making sure she was hearing from all sides because that’s the only way you can effectively do your job as administrator,” Liz Purchia, who was head of communications for the EPA under McCarthy, said in an email to ThinkProgress.
Pruitt has yet to give an official speech to a public health, conservation, or environmental group. The only such groups with which he has officially met are the American Academy of Pediatrics, Trout Unlimited, and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Unofficially, he met with representatives from the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society following remarks he gave at an annual Earth Day event in Texas.
Scott Pruitt’s Big Ag/Manufacturing Speeches
Pruitt’s industry audiences cover the gamut of polluters, from coal to big agriculture and fossil fuel companies. Along with the dozens of speeches to industry groups, he also addressed far right policy groups in 2017, including the socially conservative Council for National Policy and the Federalist Society, which espouses an “originalist” interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.
Pruitt brands his own philosophy as “EPA originalism” and is carrying out his pledge to fight back against what he views as Obama-era “regulatory assault.”
The Trump administration has made U.S. “energy dominance” one of its slogans. To fulfill this policy priority, Pruitt regularly meets with oil and gas groups, along with coal industry interests. In many cases, he has followed up those meetings by seeking to roll back regulations affecting those companies.
Another major polluting industry Pruitt has promised to regulate with a lighter touch is industrial agriculture, which is as much of a threat to the environment as fossil fuels.
Agriculture is a huge contributor to water pollution. The majority of American farmland is dominated by industrial agriculture, with its system of chemically intensive food production, featuring enormous single-crop farms and animal production facilities.
Herbicides and insecticides commonly used in agriculture have been associated with long-term chronic illness. Water pollution from fertilizer runoff contaminates drinking water supplies. Industrial farming also exhausts soil fertility, requiring costly applications of chemical fertilizers.
“This EPA is not interested in protecting people from harmful pesticides,” Karen Perry, senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said. “It’s more interested in bowing to the wishes of Dow [Agrochemical].”
Pesticides like chlorpyrifos are manufactured by Dow Agrosciences, a division of Dow Chemical, which donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration. A year ago, Pruitt sided with the pesticide lobby over EPA scientists in a decision to abort the agency’s proposal to ban chlorpyrifos from use on food crops.
In 2017, officials with big agriculture were one of Pruitt’s most frequent audiences. He reminds industrial farming groups that the days of treating them as adversaries who need to be closely regulated are over.
“They’re our first conservationists. They’re our first environmentalists,” Pruitt says of farmers and ranchers.
Obama administration officials also focused on agriculture. But instead of making promises of fewer regulations, Obama officials made a concerted effort to engage farmers in reducing harmful emissions.
Following Obama’s re-election in 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) started to address climate change more directly. In 2014, the agency expanded its commitment to helping farmers manage climate impacts by launching a series of Climate Hubs, aimed at providing coordination between USDA, land grant universities and extension schools, and farmers.
In his speeches, Pruitt tells industry officials that the EPA’s primary goal now is not to “penalize our economy,” a statement that, when translated into action, means making sure polluting industries are not held accountable for the environmental impact of their activity.
In December, The New York Times published an analysis of enforcement data that showed the Trump administration has adopted a more lenient approach than the previous two administrations — Democratic and Republican — toward polluters
During the first nine months under Pruitt’s leadership, the EPA started about 1,900 enforcement cases, about one-third fewer than the number under Obama’s first EPA director and about one-quarter fewer than under President George W. Bush’s over the same time period.
In April 2017, Pruitt traveled to the Harvey Mine in Pennsylvania, owned by coal and natural gas producer Consol Energy, to declare that the agency was adopting a “back to basics” philosophy. During his visit, Pruitt made sure to pose with coal miners with a white hard hat in his hand for the photographers at the event.
After his visit to Pennsylvania, Pruitt gave at least four other speeches to coal companies and industry trade groups through November, including speaking at the National Mining Association’s board meeting at a Ritz Carlton Golf Resort in Florida on April 24, and meeting with leaders of Alliance Resource Partners, a major coal company, for dinner at a restaurant in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. on April 26.
The Trump International Hotel also was the venue for a speech Pruitt gave to the American Petroleum Institute’s (API) board of directors on March 22, 2017. API was fond of Pruitt when he served as Oklahoma attorney general prior to joining the Trump administration and remains extremely encouraged by the direction Pruitt is taking the agency.
Last May, API highlighted eight changes it wanted to ease the regulation of air and water pollution. An analysis by The Guardian, published last December, showed that the EPA had either partially or wholly delivered on six out of these eight key demands.
From February through November 2017, Pruitt gave speeches at two chemical industry events: a meeting of the Louisiana Chemical Association and Louisiana Chemical Industry Alliance in New Orleans on October 27 and a meeting of the American Chemistry Council on Kiawah Island, South Carolina on November 9.
Even though the Environmental Integrity Project has been able to track the industry groups Pruitt has addressed, it has had no luck getting copies of the speeches. In December, the group filed a lawsuit in federal court against the EPA over its refusal to turn over speeches made by Pruitt.
While former administrations routinely posted speeches and public presentations made by the agency’s administrator on its website, Pruitt’s EPA has declined to do so. The agency also failed to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Environmental Integrity Project on October 24 for speeches and other prepared remarks he has given to third parties in his role as EPA administrator.
“When you look at who Administrator Pruitt is meeting and having conversations with, it is clear that average citizens do not have his ear — it’s big business and the fossil fuels industry,” the Environmental Integrity Project’s Greene said. “We think that American citizens — who are Mr. Pruitt’s boss — have a right to know what their employee is promising to these groups.”