Beyond Cozy: Pruitt’s Oily Emails
Communications Expose Troubling Links Between New EPA Chief, Industry, Right Wing
Oklahoma’s polluters and right-wing groups love “General Pruitt,” as they often referred to then-Attorney General Scott Pruitt in their emails and letters. And Pruitt loved them right back, leading their legal and ideological assaults on the federal government and its environmental laws, often by putting their arguments under his letterhead.
This week’s release of more than 7,500 pages of emails from Pruitt’s stint as Oklahoma’s attorney general reinforced concerns that our newly confirmed Environmental Protection Agency head was a puppet of the oil industry. But as I read through this correspondence as part of a thorough review by the Center for Biological Diversity, both the mundane messages and “hot docs” flagged by my colleagues, I was struck by how Pruitt’s office normalized and internalized the self-serving arguments of his state’s industrialists.
It’s easy to understand why Devon Energy Corporation didn’t like the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed fracking regulations. Or why the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers opposed the EPA’s renewable fuel standards. These environmental protections cut into the industry’s profits, so they pushed back with lawsuits, legislation, and deceptive rhetoric about freedom, liberty, states’ rights, and big government overreach.
It’s a little tougher to understand why Pruitt carried on their crusades for them — until you see how right-wing, industry-sponsored groups heaped praise and campaign contributions on Pruitt, featuring him in their forums and elevating him as a national political figure.
“Firstly, thank you to your respective bosses and all they are doing to push back against President Obama’s EPA and its axis with liberal environmental groups to increase energy costs for Oklahomans and American families across the states. You both work for true champions of freedom and liberty!” Matt Ball with Americans for Prosperity wrote to a Pruitt representative about his appearance at its 2014 event called “EPA Regulations and Your Pocketbook.”
As industry-sponsored groups often did when inviting Pruitt to speak, or to write a letter or file a lawsuit on their behalf, Ball offered talking points for Pruitt’s speech: “This is an excellent opportunity for the AG to discuss the role of attorneys general as a last line of defense for states rights against overly intrusive federal regulation of which EPA environmental is only one example. More specifically, the AG can discuss the specifics of his new Sue and Settle litigation, its merits, context, etc so as to explain how the states are pushing back against the President’s environmental agenda through the rule of law.”
“Sue-and-settle” is a criticism cooked up by polluters to describe how environmental groups sue to enforce federal environmental laws and agencies sometimes settle when the facts warrant. Industry-sponsored groups argue state officials need to have a say in such decisions, but the courts have rejected that argument — just as they did almost every time Pruitt sued the federal government, whether over environmental laws or the rollout of Obamacare. The “rule of law” hasn’t been on the General’s side, but his sponsors have kept trying.
“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 [oil and gas exploration and production] emission regulation. It would be a shot across the bow, warning EPA not to not go down a negotiated-rulemaking or wink-at-a sue-and-settle tee-up process,” Bill Witsitt, Devon’s executive vice president for public affairs, wrote to a Pruitt representative, who dutifully passed it on to her boss, who dutifully submitted it with sign-ons from other Republican attorneys general.
“You are so amazingly helpful!!! Thank you so much!!!” Pruitt’s Chief-of-Staff Melissa Houston wrote to Witsitt on another occasion when the oil executive gave her more water for Pruitt to carry. That effusive tone marked much of the correspondence between Pruitt’s office and industry or industry-sponsored groups. Both sides seemed to genuinely appreciate their symbiotic relationship.
“I fight for federalism because I believe in big ideas,” was the tagline the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs — an industry-sponsored conservative group affiliated with the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council that frequently communicated with Pruitt’s office — created for Pruitt’s speech at its 2013 event.
Now that Pruitt has been elevated to lead the agency that he and his allies spent so much time attacking, will he continue to advocate for states to take the lead role on environmental enforcement? Given that states often lack the resources and authority to regulate big polluters, the people who have sponsored Pruitt’s rise, that’s a safe bet.
“Regulators exist to give certainty to those they regulate,” Pruitt said at his opening speech at the EPA this week, reportedly appalling many longtime staffers. “I seek to ensure that we engender the trust of those at the state level, that those at the state level see us as partners…and not as adversaries.”
This week’s court-ordered release of emails was just the first batch, with several thousand more pages coming next week. I expect the love letters between Pruitt’s office and Oklahoma’s industrialists and right-wing ideologues to continue, and we’ll pore through them again, looking for any ammo we can use to resist the attacks of General Pruitt and his partners.