Emails Reveal EPA Chief Scott Pruitt’s Dirty Dealings With Oil and Gas Industry

Newly released documents reveal another example of industry operatives drafting and editing text the former Oklahoma attorney general submitted to a federal agency.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 18: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, President-elect Donald Trump's choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, arrives for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Capitol Hill January 18, 2017 in Washington, DC. Pruitt is expected to face tough questioning about his stance on climate change and ties to the oil and gas industry.   (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)
Scott Pruitt, arrives for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Capitol Hill Jan. 18, 2017 in Washington. Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Emails released Tuesday night illustrate the remarkably close relationship between EPA head Scott Pruitt and the oil and gas industry while he served as Oklahoma’s attorney general. The emails were made public as the result of a lawsuit and open records request by the Center for Media and Democracy only days after Pruitt was confirmed to lead an agency he has long fought to undermine.

The 7,500 documents reveal a new example of oil and gas industry operatives drafting and editing text Pruitt submitted to a federal agency, and they show how Oklahoma Gas & Electric and American Electric Power, both of which contributed to Pruitt’s election campaigns, reviewed documents pertaining to at least one rule affecting utility rates.

The emails contain thousands of references to and communications with the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, which has ties to ALEC, the conservative group that drafts “model” pro-business legislation. Pruitt’s office seemed to operate in conjunction with the council, which helped coordinate press for the attorney general and regularly released his blog posts on their newsletter, “Freedom Flash.” So after Pruitt appeared on Fox News in November 2013, for instance, OCPA’s Jonathan Small emailed Aaron Cooper, who was Pruitt’s director of public affairs, to tell him he was going to turn the video into a blog and “freedom flash it out.”

The emails also show employees’ attempts to make the work of the attorney general’s office confidential. “Don’t forget to take our name off our appearance,” reads one email from Oklahoma Assistant Attorney General Nicole King. Another email sent to three people in the attorney general’s office reads, “As you will see there is some confidential and highly sensitive confidential information. I am working on a confidentiality agreement based on what the Commission has been approving.”

In keeping with this effort to keep Pruitt’s communications private, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office still has not released all the emails the Center for Media and Democracy first requested more than two years ago. Even after Oklahoma Judge Aletia Haynes Timmons criticized the office for its “abject failure” to follow the open records law, the AG’s office withheld an unspecified number of documents on the grounds that they were privileged. Many of those that it did release were redacted. Judge Timmons ruled that the attorney general’s office has to supply additional records by February 27.

Methane Regulation

On May 2, 2013, Scott Pruitt and 12 other attorneys general sent a letter to the EPA urging the agency to avoid regulating methane emissions. The emails released Tuesday make clear that Devon Energy had a hand in drafting the letter, which argued that voluntary industry efforts to restrict emissions were sufficient, that federal emissions estimates were inaccurate, and that regulating methane fell outside the purview of the law. The letter was meant to counter threats by northeastern states that they would file a lawsuit against the EPA for failing to regulate methane. “In sum,” the letter reads, “regulation of methane emissions from oil and gas facilities is not ‘appropriate’ under the analysis contemplated by [the Clean Air Act].”

William Whitsitt, vice president for public affairs at Devon, had reached out to Oklahoma’s solicitor general, Patrick Wyrick, less than two months before, on March 21, 2013, writing, “Attached is a potential first-cut draft of a letter a (bipartisan if possible?) group of AGs might send to the acting EPA administrator and some others in the Administration in response to the NE states’ notice of intent to sue for more E&P emission regulation.”

Two months later, on May 1, Deputy Solicitor General Clayton Eubanks reached out to the Devon vice president, asking him explicitly for input. “I would like to get the letter out in the morning,” he wrote. “Any suggestions?”

Whitsitt did indeed have suggestions, writing back, “Here you go. Please note that you could use just the red changes, or both red and blue (the latter being some further improvements from one of our experts) or none. Hope this helps.”

Attachments to Pruitt’s emails were not released, leaving it unclear whether the letter remained as unchanged by Pruitt’s office as an October 2011 Devon-drafted letter he signed that was published by the New York Times in a Pulitzer-winning 2014 series. A press release for the May 2 comment boasted about the success of that earlier letter.

“In October 2011, General Pruitt wrote a letter to the nation’s AGs alerting them to new inaccurate methods being used by the EPA to measure the amount of methane gas released into the atmosphere by conventional natural gas wells and unconventional wells used for hydraulic fracturing,” the 2013 release said. “Following the letter and other public comments of concern, the EPA declined to regulate methane emissions from oil and gas facilities, and instead remain within their role of the Clean Air Act to review state standards.”

In May 2016, the Obama administration’s EPA finally released a rule regulating methane emissions on new oil and gas equipment. Three months later, Pruitt joined a lawsuit fighting the rule.

The documents contain additional examples of the ways in which the oil and gas industry shaped Pruitt’s work as attorney general. On January 28, 2014, Stephanie Houle, who was then a staff attorney for the energy company OG&E, reached out to Pruitt’s office to note that “It has come to our attention that the filed PDF version” of the company’s comments on a rule affecting electricity providers “did not capture the revisions OG&E made in redline format. The attached word document should clearly indicate the changes.” While input from public utilities on rules that affect them isn’t necessarily problematic, it indicates a coziness that raises questions.

The emails record the attorney general’s staff setting up numerous meetings with energy company executives: arranging for Pruitt to have dinner at the Petroleum Club, responding to an invitation for dinner at the governor’s mansion with the board of ALEC, and dining time and again with employees of Devon Energy.

In an email, Devon Energy spokesperson John Porretto told The Intercept, “Our engagement with Scott Pruitt as Attorney General of Oklahoma is consistent — and proportionate — with our commitment to engage in conversations with policymakers on a broad range of matters,” adding, “We have a clear obligation to our shareholders and others to be involved in these discussions related to job growth, economic growth and domestic energy. It is important that we give full consideration to policymaker requests for information and expertise on industry issues. It would be indefensible for us to not be engaged in these important issues.”

Oklahoma, like the rest of the country and the world, is already experiencing catastrophic consequences of the kind of unrestrained energy production Pruitt promoted as attorney general. In the past eight years, earthquakes in the state have increased by some 4,000 percent, a change that researchers attribute to the injection of fracking wastewater into the earth. Temperatures and extreme weather events are also on the rise around the country and world.

Pruitt doesn’t seem concerned about how the consequences of his energy and environmental policy will affect the lives, health, and homes of the public at large. But after an unusually severe thunderstorm hit Tulsa in the early morning of 2013, Pruitt did seem concerned about his own house. According to an email his assistant Ashley Olmstead sent that day to Howard L. Ground, manager of governmental and environmental affairs for the Public Service Company of Oklahoma, “General Pruitt asked that I reach out and see if there is any timeline on when he and the surrounding area might begin to have their power restored,” Olmstead wrote, adding, “Hope you are well and that you are getting to spend time with your grandbaby!”

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