Toyota set up Lexus test drive with Pruitt, who then announced EPA partnership with car maker

Both the EPA and Toyota agreed they wouldn't tweet about the afternoon test drive.

The Lexus LC500 at the company's press conference at the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan. (Credit: GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images)
The Lexus LC500 at the company's press conference at the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan. (Credit: GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images)

Newly released emails reveal Toyota arranged for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt to test drive a Lexus LC500 — a car worth nearly $100,000 — on the afternoon of November 21, 2017. Weeks later, on December 7, Pruitt announced his intention for the EPA to work with Toyota to overhaul internal management practices at the agency.

According to the “ride-and-drive” schedule contained in emails released to the Sierra Club, Toyota’s vice president for North America product regulatory affairs, Tom Stricker, planned to arrive at the EPA at 2:45 p.m. driving the Lexus. He would then take the administrator and at least one member of his security team to a hydrogen refueling station on New York Avenue in Washington, D.C.

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At the H2 station, they would meet Chris Santucci, energy research manager at Toyota Motor North America, and Jason Marcinkoski, a fuel cell technology manager with the Department of Energy. The plan was to “see/experience refueling of the Toyota Mirai” — a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle — as well as drive the Mirai “in the local area” before returning to the EPA in the Lexus.

“Just as a reminder,” Stricker wrote to Hayley Ford, deputy White House liaison and personal aide to Pruitt, “the back seat of the Lexus LC500 is really small, so hopefully the security person doesn’t mind be [sic] cramped for a few miles.”

In emails arranging the final details, both the EPA and Toyota agreed not to publicize the event. As Ford wrote to Stricker, “We will not post or tweet anything. If we do decide to, we will let you know before we do so, but we are not planning on it.”

Stricker replied, “Great… we won’t post anything either… although my boss said to get some pictures!”

Pruitt’s plan to bring Toyota into the fold to help overhaul the EPA’s management practices ultimately fell through in January 2018 when Toyota pulled out after pressure from environmental groups.

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The Environmental Working Group sent a letter in December to Toyota, urging the company to reconsider its decision to partner with the EPA. In response, Toyota defended its choice, explaining it hoped to share its “Toyota Production System” method of management.

“The goal of the subsidiary — the Toyota Production System Support Center (TSSC) — is to contribute to society by teaching organizations and groups external to Toyota how to apply this efficiency system to their operations,” Toyota’s executive vice president Christopher Reynolds wrote to EWG.

“EPA and TSSC had preliminary discussions about how EPA could employ a model similar to TPS, but at this point there are no definitive plans to move forward with a project,” Reynolds concluded the letter, dated January 9, 2018.

The test drive, and potential partnership, further illuminate the relationship between the car maker and the agency. And despite publicly promoting its efforts to create alternative fuel vehicles, reports last November show Toyota aggressively lobbied against fuel economy standards designed to reduce emissions from vehicles — Obama-era standards that were recently repealed by Pruitt.

Since President Trump took office, disclosure records show Toyota spent $30,000 specifically lobbying the EPA. And in the EPA’s decision to roll back fuel economy standards announced in April, the agency cites estimates from Toyota, and other car companies, about the apparent decline in electric vehicle sales as one reason behind its policy change.

In response to Pruitt’s announcement that the agency would roll back the auto efficiency standards, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers — an industry trade group that counts Toyota among its members — said it was “the right decision.”

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The EPA did not reply to requests for comment from ThinkProgress regarding the test drive and whether the proposed partnership or other environmental regulations were discussed.

“Is there any perk Scott Pruitt wouldn’t accept from the industries the EPA regulates?” Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, said in a statement.

Sierra Club’s deputy advocacy director for its clean transportation campaign, Andrew Linhadt struck a similar tone. “Whether it is on policies that sell out our health and our future, or on personal perks and experiences from a company lobbying him to rollback lifesaving standards he simply must indulge,” Linhadt said in a statement to ThinkProgress.

The proposed November test drive — which ultimately did not take place due to scheduling difficulties — came about after Pruitt visited the company’s new campus in Plano, Texas in August 2017. The proposed topics of discussion for the August meeting included alternative fuel vehicles and emissions standards.

In September, Daisy Letendre, a senior EPA policy adviser, wrote to Stricker that the EPA would be interested in discussing “EPA’s sector strategies.” She also brought up the idea of setting up a “lunchtime drive” for Pruitt to test the LC500.

“I just wanted to let you know the offer still stands for Administrator Pruitt to take a drive in our new Lexus LC500 sports sedan,” Stricker replied in October to Letendre and Millan Hupp, Pruitt’s former director of scheduling. “He saw one in Texas and seemed excited to take it for a spin – time permitting, of course. I’m happy to help make that happen here in DC.”


UPDATE: While Toyota and the EPA were coordinating the test drive via email up until the day prior to when it was scheduled, according to Toyota, the test drive ultimately did not take place.

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A Toyota spokesperson told ThinkProgress via email: “Like other automakers, we offer test drives to numerous officials, media, NGO’s and consumers as a way to demonstrate our latest safety, environmental and connected technologies. In this case, due to scheduling difficulties, the test drives of the Lexus LC500 and Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle never actually occurred.”