Politics

EPA head Scott Pruitt holds few meetings with environmentalists

Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, left the West Wing of White House in June.
Al Drago/New York Times/File
Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, left the West Wing of White House in June.

WASHINGTON — For lunch on April 26, Scott Pruitt, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, dined with top executives from Southern Co., one of the nation’s largest coal-burning electric utilities, at Equinox, a white-tablecloth favorite of Washington power brokers.

That evening, it was on to BLT Prime, a steakhouse inside the Trump International Hotel in Washington, for a meal with the board of directors of Alliance Resource Partners, a coal-mining giant whose chief executive donated nearly $2 million to help elect President Donald Trump.

Before those two agenda items, Pruitt met privately with top executives and lobbyists from General Motors to talk about their request to block an Obama administration move to curb emissions that contribute to climate change.

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It was just a typical day for Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general. Since taking office in February, Trump’s EPA chief has held back-to-back meetings, briefing sessions and speaking engagements almost daily with top corporate executives and lobbyists from all the major economic sectors that he regulates — and almost no meetings with environmental groups or consumer or public health advocates, according to a 320-page accounting of his daily schedule from February through May, the most detailed look yet at what Pruitt has been up to since he took over the agency.

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Many of those players have high-profile matters pending before the agency, with potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in regulatory costs at stake. Some of these same companies and trade associations were allies of Pruitt when, as Oklahoma’s attorney general, he sued the EPA at least 14 times to try to block rules he is now in charge of enforcing.

He also took several trips home to Oklahoma for long weekends, often with one or two brief work meetings, followed by long stretches of downtime.

EPA officials defended Pruitt’s industry-heavy appointment book. “As EPA has been the poster child for regulatory overreach, the agency is now meeting with those ignored by the Obama administration,” an emailed statement from the agency said, adding that the agency believed that The New York Times was making an “attempt to sensationalize for clicks” the administrator’s detailed calendar.

But William K. Reilly, the EPA administrator under President George H.W. Bush, described the level of meetings between Pruitt and industry executives as unusual.

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“My sense is there is almost nothing about this administration that is traditional,” Reilly said. He said Pruitt’s history of suing the EPA should have prompted him to meet regularly with public health advocates and environmentalists. “I would think he would feel a responsibility to bend over backward to show a sense of judicious impartiality,” Reilly said.

In just the first two weeks of May, Pruitt met with the chief executive of the Chemours Co., a leading chemical-maker, as well as three chemical lobbying groups; the egg producers lobby; the president of Shell Oil Co.; Southern Co.’s chief executive; lobbyists for the farm bureau, the toy association and a cement association; the president of a truck equipment manufacturer seeking to roll back emissions regulations for trucks; and the president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

The EPA leader also scheduled a call with the Family Research Council, whose self-described mission is to “advance faith, family and freedom in public policy and the culture from a Christian worldview.” The topic: pulling “together a small group of key business leaders around the country who are very excited about Administrator Pruitt’s new leadership role.”

In recent weeks, Freedom of Information Act requests from environmentalists, other nonprofit groups and news organizations including The Washington Post have dislodged documents that hint at Pruitt’s typical day. But for the first time, the most recent release, based on an open records request by the liberal nonprofit American Oversight, includes a description of the topics discussed at each of the meetings, and a list of all the agency officials and corporate executives scheduled to attend.

Pruitt has also made frequent, government-funded trips to his home state of Oklahoma, even when the journeys included only a bit of official business. A trip to Oklahoma on May 5, which cost $1,043, was justified by the EPA as an “informational meeting.” It consisted of a one-hour sit-down that Friday with Sam Wade, the chief executive of the National Rural Water Association, then a return flight to Washington the following Monday.

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Pruitt flew to Oklahoma on May 19, a Friday, toured a chemical company for three hours the next day, then returned to Washington on Monday. The flight for that trip cost $2,122. These trips are being examined by the agency’s inspector general.

In later trips Pruitt appears to have scheduled a greater number of meetings around trips to Oklahoma, such as a three-day trip in July during which he toured a Phillips 66 energy plant, spoke to the Chamber of Commerce in Tulsa, held a roundtable on the rollback of a Clean Water Act regulation and met with Gov. Mary Fallin. Pruitt generally takes commercial flights when he travels, records show, but on at least one occasion he flew on a much more expensive charter flight, and on two other occasions, on federal government and military planes, after getting authorization from agency officials.

But many of Pruitt’s trips outside Washington, the records show, also involved speeches to industry groups and conservative activists who worked closely with the energy industry to challenge the Obama administration’s regulatory agenda.

Destinations included the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Naples, Florida, in late April, where Pruitt spoke to the National Mining Association; the Phoenician, a golf resort and spa in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he spoke to the National Association of Manufacturers; and the Broadmoor, a Colorado Springs, Colorado, hotel, for a gathering of conservative activists, sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, where the agenda included sessions like “Innovative Ways to Roll Back the Administrative State.”

The Times also examined more than a year’s worth of calendar records maintained for Gina McCarthy, Pruitt’s predecessor under President Obama, which also demonstrated a partisan bent. McCarthy held a disproportionate number of meetings with Democratic lawmakers and environmental groups, particularly in the summer of 2014, when the administration was making the case for sweeping climate-change regulations.

But the documents show McCarthy apparently spent much more time meeting with EPA professional staff and other federal government officials than Pruitt, discussing agency programs and policies. She also met with industry players, like the American Gas Association, the National Pork Producers Council and Edison Electric Institute, the utility lobby.

One of Pruitt’s first scheduled meetings with a public health advocacy group, according to the calendar, came on May 24 when he sat down with the American Academy of Pediatrics. A day later he had two meetings with environmental activists, including a group called Trout Unlimited, a conservation group. Liz Bowman, a spokeswoman for the EPA, said the agency (she would not specify who) had met with more than two dozen other health and environmental groups, including the Audubon Society and the American Lung Association.

The newly released documents, for the first time, create a direct link between Pruitt’s meetings and actions that the industry wants him to take.

The oil and gas industry, for example, opposed an Obama-era rule that required it to collect information on the emission of methane, a gas considered at least 25 times as effective at warming the planet as carbon dioxide.

On March 27, A.J. Ferate, the vice president of regulatory affairs at the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, saw Pruitt for half an hour in the administrator’s office to offer, according to the schedule notes, “just a few words of appreciation for canceling the Information Collection Request (ICR) on the oil and gas industry.” Ferate and Pruitt had been working together since at least 2011 — when Pruitt was Oklahoma’s attorney general — to try to kill the methane rule.

The calendars show how companies often turn to people with close personal ties to Trump or Pruitt to set up meetings. Roy W. Bailey, the Texas co-finance chairman for the Trump campaign, helped organize a meeting for Intrexon, a Maryland company that wants EPA approval for a biotech-based mosquito control system. Jessica M. Garrison, a former consultant to the Republican Attorneys General Association, helped set up the lunch that Pruitt had at Equinox with electric utility executives.

The schedule also includes a number of meetings with automakers who pressed the Trump administration to roll back Obama’s decision to lock in vehicle emissions rules through 2025. Pruitt met in his office on March 17 with the chairman of BMW, Harald Krüger. On April 27, Pruitt met with GM a second time, along with nine other automakers represented by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. The topic: “key EPA priorities affecting the auto industry.”

Pruitt in late April welcomed five executives from a trade association representing sorghum cereal grain growers, including their lobbyist, Joe Bischoff, a former Agriculture Department official. The message they offered Pruitt: The industry had “witnessed significant pesticide-related restrictions and the threat of revocation of more than half of the crop’s reliable insecticides.”

Representatives from CropLife America, a trade association run by giant pesticide companies such as Dow AgroSciences and Bayer CropScience, separately met with Pruitt to “acknowledge the many actions taken already to correct recent regulatory overreach.” The CropLife meeting came the day after Pruitt overruled EPA scientists who had recommended that the agency ban a pesticide, chlorpyrifos, which has been blamed, in EPA-funded research, for causing developmental disabilities in children, particularly among farmworkers’ families.

Industry executives and conservative activists often scored meetings to press Pruitt to kill or modify Obama-era climate change regulations, particularly the so-called Clean Power Plan. A May 18 conference call included representatives from the State Policy Network and American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization with ties to Charles G. and David H. Koch, the billionaire industrialists.

“Many people on this call were leading the Clean Power Plan pushback in their state and are advocates for devolving decision-making to the local level,” the calendar notes.

The EPA is expected to issue a legal justification and plan for rescinding the Clean Power Plan as soon as this week.