With electricity out, new EPA chief reached out to lobbyist
WASHINGTON (AP) — When a summer thunderstorm knocked out power to Scott Pruitt’s home three years ago, the then-attorney general of Oklahoma reached out to a lobbyist for American Electric Power.
Pruitt’s executive assistant emailed Howard “Bud” Ground, saying “General Pruitt” wanted to know when his lights would be back on. The utility lobbyist asked for Pruitt’s address and a work crew soon arrived at the Republican official’s sprawling, 5,500-square-foot Tulsa home.
The 2013 email exchange is one of dozens reviewed by The Associated Press that underscore the cozy ties between the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency and those that profit from burning fossil fuels. AEP generates about 60 percent of its electricity from coal, creating planet-warming carbon emissions that Pruitt is now charged with regulating.
More than 7,500 pages were released under court order this week after an Oklahoma judge ruled that Pruitt had been illegally withholding his correspondence, which is public record under state law, for the last two years.
The Republican-dominated Senate voted on Friday to confirm President Donald Trump’s pick to lead EPA. Democrats had sought to delay the vote on Pruitt’s confirmation until the requested emails were released, but Republican leaders used their slim majority to push Pruitt through.
The emails show Pruitt and his staff coordinating their legal strategy with oil and gas industry executives and conservative advocacy groups funded by those profiting from fossil fuels, including the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch. While serving as Oklahoma’s elected state lawyer for the last six years, Pruitt sued federal agencies more than a dozen times to challenge stricter environmental regulations.
Among the emails is a series of 2013 exchanges between Pruitt’s staff and Richard Moskowitz, general counsel for the Washington-based American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers. The lawyer detailed the industry’s plan to seek waivers from the federal rules boosting the use of renewable fuels and asked Pruitt to make a specific legal argument under air pollution regulations known as the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. The email was copied to Thomas Bates, then Pruitt’s first assistant attorney general.
“We think it would be most effective for Oklahoma to file a separate waiver petition that emphasizes ‘severe environmental harm,’ as this argument is more credible coming from a state with primary responsibility for achieving and maintaining attainment with the NAAQS,” Moskowitz wrote.
Moskowitz’s email was then forwarded to Pruitt’s deputy solicitor general, P. Clayton Eubanks, who replied that he knew little about the federal Renewable Fuel Standard and asked for further instructions about what the trade group wanted them to do.
“I think it is safe to say that AG Pruitt has an interest in the issue,” Eubanks wrote. “Hopefully I haven’t missed the boat too much on these questions, but I want to make sure I fully understand what Oklahoma’s role will be.”
Pruitt did not respond Wednesday to emails requesting comment.
Environmentalists cited Pruitt’s close ties to the fossil fuel industry in opposing his nomination. Like Trump, Pruitt has questioned the validity of scientific studies showing the Earth is warming and that carbon emissions from human activity are the primary cause. As attorney general, Pruitt’s office joined a GOP-led multistate lawsuit seeking to overturn President Barack Obama’s plan to limit emissions from coal-fired power plants.
During his confirmation hearing last month, Senate Democrats pressed Pruitt on political donations he had raised from energy companies such as Exxon Mobil and Devon Energy, including “dark money” funneled to groups not required to disclose their donors.
Pruitt’s staff was also in close contact with the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Prosperity to coordinate opposition to new EPA regulations. Oil industry giant Exxon Mobil is a major donor to ALEC, while AFP is closely linked to Koch Industries, which owns petroleum pipelines.
In another exchange of emails from 2013, executives from Devon, an Oklahoma City-based oil and gas company, asked Pruitt to send an official state response to new regulations on hydraulic fracturing proposed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The company provided a draft letter for Pruitt’s signature, addressed to the White House office that reviews regulations.
“Our goal is to have input to (the office) with a goal of its directing BLM to completely do away with the present thrust,” wrote William Whitsitt, an executive vice president at Devon. Brent Rockwood, another Devon executive, chimed in with suggested edits and additions for Pruitt’s filing.
“Thank you for your guidance and assistance in getting this letter out,” Eubanks, the deputy solicitor general, later emailed Rockwood.
Melissa McLawhorn Houston, Pruitt’s chief of staff, emailed a Devon executive in November 2013 asking whether it would be possible for her to take her sons to a posh restaurant at the top of the company’s 50-story headquarters building. She wrote that they were “dressed like tourists” and had no plans to eat.
Allen Wright, Devon’s vice president for government affairs, quickly responded by having his assistant arrange a personal escort for Houston, who later followed up by inviting the executive out to lunch.
“You are so sweet!” Houston responded to Wright. “Thank you again so much for your help on this! Very sweet and you’ll be making 2 little boys very happy!”
In an interview Wednesday, Houston insisted she wasn’t asking for a favor, but rather was just emailing a longtime acquaintance out of concern her family might not be appropriately dressed. She said they ended up not going and that her sons have still not made it to the top of Devon Tower.
Asked about a separate email confirming an appointment for her at the building a few days later, Houston said she had no specific recollection of what that visit was about.
“I’ve been to Devon several times,” Houston said, adding that she likes the gelato sold in the lobby.
Causey reported from Oklahoma City. Associated Press writers Ted Bridis, Seth Borenstein and Matthew Daly in Washington; Jason Dearen in Gainesville, Florida; Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City; Ellen Knickmeyer in San Francisco; Tammy Webber in Chicago; John Flesher in Traverse City, Michigan; Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana; and Kelly P. Kissel in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this report.
Follow AP environmental reporter Michael Biesecker at www.Twitter.com/mbieseck