The existential threat posed by climate change can often obscure the more immediate vulnerabilities that regulatory bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency guard against. As Scott Faber of the nonprofit research organization Environmental Working Group put it, “The EPA is the only guarantee that when you turn on your tap your water isn’t full of shit.” So it’s alarming that Scott Pruitt, newly confirmed administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency once worked on behalf of donors in Oklahoma to stop his new employer from keeping literal chicken shit out of the water.
On Wednesday, the Office of the Oklahoma Attorney General released thousands of pages of emails between Scott Pruitt, his senior staff, and high-level executives, lobbyists, and lawyers in the fossil fuel industry that show how Pruitt worked to further the financial and political agenda of the very people that he, as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is now tasked with regulating. The same agency was a defendant in at least twenty-two different lawsuits that Pruitt, in his role as AG, either brought or joined. As Oklahoma AG, he sued the EPA 14 times. In many of those legal battles—some of which are ongoing—Pruitt was joined by fossil fuel companies and other polluters fighting against President Obama’s environmental agenda; in other cases, Pruitt filed briefs on behalf of those companies when they sued the EPA themselves. He collaborated with polluters in other ways, too, namely, by taking their money.
As the New York Times and others have reported, an Environmental Working Group analysis found that Pruitt received more than $40,000 in campaign contributions during his 2010 attorney general campaign from defendants in a lawsuit brought by his Democratic predecessor, Drew Edmondson, against poultry companies in Arkansas that were polluting the water in neighboring Oklahoma.
Then the case—which Pruitt appears to have misled congress about during his confirmation hearings—stalled. By 2013, Pruitt had been elected Oklahoma AG, and the office’s environmental law budget had been cut entirely. Existing environmental cases—like the chicken shit lawsuit—were moved under the newly-created “federalism unit,” dedicated to using the courts to fight “unwarranted regulation and systematic overreach” by Washington and run by Pruitt’s solicitor general, whose office, emails released on Wednesday show, was just as closely tied to energy companies as Pruitt himself.
The emails have been released in response to a court order, following years of delays culminated in a lawsuit filed by the Center for Media and Democracy—and just days after the Senate voted to confirm him as EPA administrator. “There is no valid legal justification for the emails we received last night not being released prior to Pruitt’s confirmation vote other than to evade public scrutiny,” Arn Pearson, general counsel for CMD, said in a statement. “There are hundreds of emails between the AG’s office, Devon Energy, and other polluters that Senators should have been permitted to review prior to their vote to assess Pruitt’s ties to the fossil fuel industry.”
According to CMD’s executive director, Nick Surgey, the AG’s office is still holding back a significant number of responsive documents, including the letters, drafted by oil lobbyists and obtained by the New York Times, that Pruitt sent to the EPA, the Department of the Interior, and President Obama himself on official state letterhead. “That’s actually called representative government in my view of the world,” Pruitt later said.
Thanks to this batch of emails, we now know that that a senior counsel at Koch Industries once set up a conference call with several high-ranking Pruitt staffers to discuss so-called “Judicial Hellholes” wherein, according to the right-wing American Tort Reform Foundation, “judges in civil cases systematically apply laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner”; that lawyers for industry groups coordinated legal strategy with the AG’s office, and that in January 2013 an oil industry lobbyist was able to extract policy concessions from a federal agency by alluding to the threat of a lawsuit, not from the oil industry, but from the Oklahoma attorney general.
In that instance, Devon Energy’s chief lobbyist, Bill Whitsitt, wrote to Patrick R. Wyrick, the solicitor general, to let him know that the Bureau of Land Management had agreed, “thanks to input received,” to propose different rules for fracking on federal lands. The “input received,” it turns out, was a warning that states like Oklahoma would sue if the proposed fracking rules were accepted. Whitsitt did not respond to a request for comment from Gizmodo.
We now also know that a few months later, Whitsitt sent Pruitt’s senior staff a draft letter for Pruitt to either send to federal agencies or use as talking points in a conference call with regulators on the fracking rule. Whatever they were—the attached letter was not included in the released documents—Pruitt and Devon’s fight against the fracking rule was successful in both the short and long terms: BLM revised the rule that spring, and then a federal judge struck it down altogether this past summer.
In May 2013, Pruitt’s deputy solicitor general, Clayton Eubanks, consulted with Devon executives (including Whitsitt) on the language of a letter regarding the Clean Air Act that the attorney general would eventually send to the EPA on official, state letterhead.
That night, Pruitt attended the American Legislative Exchange Council’s board dinner at the governor’s mansion in Oklahoma City. ALEC, as the corporate bill-mill is widely known, serves as a go-between for industry groups, government officials, and state legislators—its 2013 Spring Summit was in Pruitt’s backyard. The next day Pruitt was a participant in an ALEC panel, “Embracing American Energy Opportunities: From Wellheads to Pipelines,” along with Jack Stark, president and COO of Continental Resources, an oil company and co-litigant in one of Pruitt’s EPA lawsuits. (Continental employees have made at least $22,000 in campaign contributions on Pruitt’s behalf since 2010.) Sponsors of the evening reception, hosted at the Petroleum Club, included Devon and Koch Industries. That summer, Matt Ball, the Oklahoma state director for the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity described Pruitt to one of the AG’s staffers as a “true champion of freedom and liberty!”
Devon wasn’t the only fossil fuel group whose agenda Pruitt helped along during his time as Oklahoma AG: Wednesday’s emails show that Roderick Hastie, a lobbyist for a law firm that Pruitt supported in at least one suit against the EPA, provided Eubanks with at least two white papers apparently containing talking points for Pruitt to use when discussing potential litigation with other attorneys general.
“Corporate lawyers producing talking points about [Pruitt’s] accomplishments seems like the tail wagging the dog,” Lisa Graves, executive director at the Center for Media and Democracy, told Gizmodo in an email, “but that’s because I expect the state’s top law enforcement officers to be truly independent of the industries they are supposed to be helping to regulate or pursuing for potential violations of state laws. Instead, Pruitt looks like a football player with the corporations as the coach, giving him instructions and talking up how well he executed their playbook, while being paid by the taxpayers to supposedly serve the public interest.”
Wednesday’s emails confirm what campaign contributions already indicated—that Pruitt runs on oil and coal and natural gas. To date, the Environmental Working Group has found, co-litigants in lawsuits Pruitt either brought or joined have contributed more than a quarter-million dollars to his campaigns and affiliated PACs—a number that does not include contributions to two secretive political organizations, the Republican Attorneys General Association and the affiliated Rule of Law Defense Fund, in which Pruitt is an active member.
These emails also show that, in January 2014, Sarah Magruder-Lyle, a lobbyist for the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers—a fossil fuel industry group, many of whose members have worked with Pruitt in suing the EPA—wished Pruitt’s chief of staff a happy new year and asked if she would be attending the RAGA winter meeting in February. “We need to catch up soon- it’s been way too long,” Lyle, a Bush-era White House liaison to the Department of Energy, wrote. At a staff retreat last year, Chet Thompson, president of American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers and deputy general counsel to the EPA under Bush personally thanked him and Strange for their “instrumental” work in pushing back against environmental regulations.
Before Pruitt negotiated his “historic” 2013 settlement with the chicken-shit polluters, the EPA started a years-long water quality study in the Illinois River watershed. The agency has released some preliminary reports, but the final analysis is yet to be completed and released.
“The models that EPA developed would normally form the basis for making decisions on what kinds of pollution reductions are necessary to meet water quality objectives,” a former employee of Oklahoma’s Department of Environmental Quality, Mark Derichsweiler wrote in an email to Gizmodo. “The models are just a tool. After they are developed, they have to be applied to find solutions.” He continued: “I realize we are no longer operating in ‘normal’ times so I really don’t know what to expect next. I surely don’t expect Scott Pruitt to be interested in cracking down on any polluters.”
In a written statement provided to Gizmodo, the EPA confirmed that the water quality study was ongoing. “We are continuing to work with state and tribal partners to refine the models to forecast water quality in the watershed,” agency spokesman Joe Hubbard wrote, adding that the agency intends to “solicit public input” on the models before finalizing any “pollutant reduction approaches.” That is to say—before coming to any conclusions about how much chicken shit is acceptable to have in the Illinois River watershed.
Derichsweiler retired in 2015 after almost 40 years in government, frustrated with Pruitt’s obstructionism. He told Gizmodo, “He’s not who I’d want to be in charge of our environmental future.”
This story was produced by Gizmodo Media Group’s Special Projects Desk.