The revolving door between the Trump administration and the industries it is meant to regulate is whirring on, with the former heads of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Interior Department (DOI) now actively employed in efforts including fossil fuel lobbying and consulting for a mining corporation.
Former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has registered as a lobbyist in Indiana, disclosing that he will be advocating on behalf of energy and natural resources interests. His new line of work — which includes lobbying for coal — comes shortly after former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced his new position as a consultant and board member for a Nevada mining company.
Both figures are less than a year out from their roles within the Trump administration, where they were tasked with safeguarding the environment and natural resources. But the Trump administration has repeatedly come under fire for close ties to lobbyists and corporations, a perception that has been reinforced by the ease with which officials have moved between the government and industry.
“[T]he continual churn between executive branch agencies and the industries they are charged with regulating raises concerns that government connections could be used to gain access to the policy process that other parties, namely the American public, don’t have,” said Dan Auble, a senior researcher with the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), in an email to ThinkProgress.
Pruitt left the EPA in the midst of numerous spending and ethics scandals after a tenure shaped by deregulation. As EPA administrator, Pruitt worked to roll back numerous Obama-era regulations, including the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which directly targeted emissions from coal-burning power plants.
Pruitt’s disclosure indicates that his address is still his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, raising questions about his decision to register in Indiana. While Pruitt is registered as self-employed, his paperwork was filed by an employee with the Bose Public Affairs Group, an Indiana-based lobbying firm that represents energy and electricity interests, among others.
And according to his lobbying disclosure, Pruitt has only one client: RailPoint Solutions LLC, a Delaware-based corporation created only four months ago. But the company manager associated with that effort is Heather Tryon, who is also the chief financial officer of Indiana-based Sunrise Coal, which operates several coal mines in the state.
Sunrise Coal is a subsidiary of Hallador Energy. According to CRP, Hallador has donated almost exclusively to Republicans, including President Donald Trump. In 2016, Hallador donated $5,400 to then-presidential candidate Carly Fiorina and $400 to Trump, along with a notable $1,000 to Zinke’s re-election campaign in Montana, where he was serving as a representative.
In 2018, Hallador donated only twice to federal candidates, giving $250 to Trump and a mere three dollars to the senate campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), now a 2020 presidential candidate.
Coal is on the decline nationally, despite efforts by Trump to revive the industry. In Indiana, two utilities have said they plan to shutter virtually all of their coal-fired power plants, a move that has met with resistance from some Republicans and from the Indiana Coal Council.
Sunrise Coal has also actively fought the construction of a new gas-fired plant in the Hoosier State, along with Alliance Resource Partners, the third-largest coal producer in the country. The head of that company is Joe Craft, whose wife is Kelly Knight Craft, the U.S. ambassador to Canada appointed by Trump. Pruitt is a longtime friend of the Crafts and met with Joe Craft at least seven times while he headed the EPA; he also met with executives at Alliance Resource Partners multiple times as he planned his new career as a lobbyist.
Hallador has hired Pruitt specifically to lobby against the closure of Indiana coal plants. The company argues that the closures are “based on Obama era rules that Trump and his EPA are in the process of unwinding,” and is pushing for the Indiana legislature to act to protect coal.
“Who better than Scott Pruitt to aid the Indiana legislature on what Trump energy policy will look like?” Hallador argued in a Saturday press release.
But the Indiana Chamber of Commerce (ICC) disputed that characterization and seemed to rule out supporting any effort to keep coal plants open.
“Not one person we’ve talked to or heard from – except for Scott Pruitt and Rail Point – thinks the (energy) moratorium will benefit ratepayers,” said ICC President Kevin Brinegar in a statement Monday.
In contrast to Pruitt, Zinke has stated that his new position with U.S. Gold Corp., the mining company, will not involve lobbying. But Edward Karr, the corporation’s chief executive, told the Associated Press that Zinke’s “excellent relationship” with DOI was a consideration in his hiring.
Zinke will be assisting with at least two projects going forward, including a Nevada project dubbed “Keystone” that is based on land overseen by DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Under a 2017 executive order from Trump, both Zinke and Pruitt are barred from lobbying their former agencies for five years. Criminal statutes also mean that certain forms of communication between departed officials and former agencies are limited for periods lasting a year or two depending on the situation.
But watchdog organizations are already expressing concerns about potential ethics violations, along with the wider issues raised by the fluid back-and-forth between the government and industry.
“Zinke and Pruitt were insiders with inside knowledge of the operations, people and plans of their agency and that is obviously valuable information,” said Auble, of CRP.
As an energy lobbyist, Pruitt in particular is already coming under fire. In a tweet Saturday, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) highlighted Pruitt’s new position.
“Scott Pruitt got hit with multiple ethics investigations for his condo deal with an energy lobbyist. Scott Pruitt resigned from the EPA in a cloud of ethics scandals. Scott Pruitt is now an energy lobbyist,” the organization noted.
As Pruitt and Zinke move into private sector work, others have migrated from industry jobs into the Trump administration. Current EPA head Andrew Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist, while newly-confirmed Interior Secretary David Bernhardt previously lobbied for the oil and gas industry.