December 17, 2018

Senators: Pruitt Conflicts, Industry Capture of Trump Administration Renders EPA’s Proposed Methane Rule Invalid

Former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt lacked a sufficiently open mind to legally preside over changes to vital protections against the powerful greenhouse gas methane; his involvement in the proposal to tear down those protections violated federal ethics rules; and that proposal amounts to an egregious hand-over of an agency’s rulemaking authority to an industry the same agency regulates.

That is what Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Edward J. Markey (D-MA) write in an official comment submitted to the EPA today on a Trump proposal to water down methane pollution requirements for oil and gas companies.  The proposed rule would result in substantially higher emissions of the potent heat-trapping gas from oil and gas facilities. 

The senators also document efforts by officials at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), apparently at the behest of their political leadership, to weaken further the proposed standard.  OIRA repeatedly overruled the advice of EPA technical experts.  OIRA Administrator Neomi Rao has a long history of working at institutions funded by the Koch brothers, whose company would directly benefit from the proposed rule.

The senators write, “The extreme and well-documented regulatory capture of the Trump EPA is evidence that it has effectively delegated its authority to the industries that have captured it, in particular, the fossil fuel industry.  There is no substantive difference between an agency explicitly telling a company or industry to write a rule for it, and an agency telling a company or industry that it will write whatever rule the company or industry wants.  Like Scott Pruitt’s Devon Energy letter, the substance is all industry, whatever the letterhead, and the public interest is ignored.”

While Pruitt resigned in disgrace in July in the wake of ethical violations and scandals related to his conduct as EPA administrator, the senators’ comment notes a lesser-noticed scandal – the major conflicts of interest flowing from his years cultivating relationships with the fossil fuel industry.  Pruitt accepted an outsized portion of his political funding from the fossil fuel industry. 

Supplied with industry funding, Pruitt used his post as Oklahoma attorney general and later EPA administrator to aggressively pursue the industry’s interests.  Attorney General Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times, including a challenge to a 2016 methane rule the proposed rule seeks to weaken.  In one instance, Pruitt took a letter criticizing EPA’s work on methane emissions composed by one of his biggest donors, Devon Energy, and cut and pasted it onto official Oklahoma attorney general stationary with only a few word changes and submitted it to the EPA over his own signature.

The problems with the proposed rule extend far beyond Pruitt or even EPA.  Numerous other EPA officials are also closely tied to the fossil fuel industry.  Current Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation William Wehrum, among others, have represented companies and trade groups with business before the EPA, many of which stand to benefit from changes like the methane rule rollback.

Improper contacts with industry, disregarding technical expertise, as well as the unexplained and unjustified regulatory U-turn, the proposed rule would represent are warning signs that demonstrate that the proposed rule is arbitrary and capricious and as such, is illegal.

The full text of the letter is available here