Environment First Look

How the release of Pruitt’s emails to the fossil fuel industry does and doesn’t matter

More than 7,500 pages of emails from the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office show a chummy relationship between Scott Pruitt and energy companies. But the release of the emails came after Pruitt's confirmation as EPA administrator. 

Scott Pruitt, an administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), speaks to employees of the agency in Washington, Feb 21, 2017.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters
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Thousands of pages of emails released by the Oklahoma Office of the Attorney General late Tuesday to meet a court deadline confirm what environmentalists and many Senate Democrats already knew: Scott Pruitt, the state’s top lawyer for six years and now head of the Environmental Protection Agency, had a chummy relationship with the fossil fuel industry.

The more than 7,500 pages of emails a judge ordered be released show Mr. Pruitt both coordinated legal strategy with energy companies to sue the agency he now heads and enjoyed personal favors from them. After a thunderstorm in the summer of 2013, for instance, Pruitt’s executive assistant at the time asked a lobbyist for American Electric power when the lights at Pruitt’s sprawling Tulsa home could be turned back on. Soon after the lobbyist asked for Pruitt’s address, utility workers arrived on scene.

The released emails, part of an open-records lawsuit filed by a liberal watchdog organization in early February, expand on a Pulitzer Prize-winning report by The New York Times in 2014, which highlighted many of the same emails. But the watchdog group, the Center for Media and Democracy, and Senate Democrats hoped the emails would be released during Pruitt’s confirmation hearing in order to enable more scrutiny of Pruitt’s record and relationships. Now that Pruitt has already been confirmed, the emails instead come during still-pending cases against the EPA Pruitt took part in, including one on electricity emissions, President Obama’s signature domestic climate policy.

“We’ve won a major breakthrough in obtaining access to public records that shine a light on Pruitt’s emails with polluters and their proxies,” Nick Surgey, research director at the Center for Media and Democracy, said in a statement. "The newly released emails reveal a close and friendly relationship between Scott Pruitt's office and the fossil fuel industry, with frequent meetings, calls, dinners and other events.”

Judge Aletia Haynes Timmons of the Seventh District Court in Oklahoma ordered the release of the emails. The Center for Media and Democracy had been fighting for their release for two years, eventually making an open-records request on Feb. 7. The group had said the emails show energy companies drafted language that Pruitt’s attorney general office then used in suing the EPA over regulations on energy operations.

The state Attorney General’s Office has yet to release an unknown number of additional emails, saying they are exempted or privileged by Oklahoma’s public records laws. Ms. Timmons is reviewing those documents, but there is no set time for their release.

The more than 7,500 emails now out have an “impolitic tone” and “cast light on why Republicans were so eager to beat the release,” writes the Times’s Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton. (Mr. Lipton won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the emails in 2014.) “[T]he totality of the correspondence captures just how much at war Mr. Pruitt was with the EPA and how cozy he was with the industries that he is now charged with policing.”

In one exchange in 2013, executives from Devon, an oil and gas company in Oklahoma City with whom Pruitt corresponded the most frequently, asked him to send an official state response to new regulations on hydraulic fracturing proposed by the US Bureau of Land Management. The company provided a draft letter for Pruitt’s signature, addressed to the White House office that reviews regulations. 

In another series of emails in November 2013, Melissa McLawhorn Houston, Pruitt’s chief of staff at the time, asked a Devon executive whether it would be possible for her to take her sons to a restaurant at the top of the company’s 50-story headquarters building. She wrote they were “dressed like tourists” and had no plans to eat. Allen Wright, Devon’s vice president for government affairs, quickly had his assistant arrange for a personal escort for Ms. Houston, who later thanked the executive by inviting him out to lunch.

"You are so sweet!" Houston responded to Mr. Wright. "Thank you again so much for your help on this! Very sweet and you'll be making 2 little boys very happy!"

A Devon spokesman, John Porretto, said the company’s correspondence with Pruitt during his time as attorney general was “consistent – and proportionate – with our commitment to engage in conversations with policymakers on a broad range of matters that promote jobs, economic growth and a robust domestic energy sector.”

“We have a clear obligation to our shareholders and others to be involved in these discussions related to job growth, economic growth and domestic energy,” added Mr. Porretto. “It would be indefensible for us to not be engaged in these important issues.”

Others who know Pruitt have previously defended his relationship with the energy industry, saying it isn’t based so much on a desire for a buddy-buddy relationship as it is on his federalism beliefs. 

“He is deeply committed to federalism in a proper sense of this word,” David Rivkin, a constitutional litigator at BakerHostetler who represented Pruitt and Oklahoma on their lawsuit against the EPA's power sector emissions rule, told Zack Colman for The Christian Science Monitor. “It’s something that very much animates his thinking. I think what a lot of people don't understand is a lot of the lawsuits he brought are driven entirely by his constitutional views.”

After being confirmed last week, Pruitt now heads the federal agency responsible for reining in pollution and regulating public health. But as Oklahoma’s attorney general he fought what he saw as the Obama administration’s broad overreach of federal authority. Among his battles with the Obama administration, Pruitt took part in 14 lawsuits against major EPA environmental rules, at times coordinating with many of the energy companies he will now regulate. One of those suits, against former President Obama’s signature domestic climate policy, is still pending.

Pruitt has previously insisted on seeing the responsibility for environmental planning and enforcement shifting back to the states.

“Our environmental statutes have a very meaningful role for the EPA and a very meaningful role for the states,” he said at a recent event. “And it’s important that they work together to ensure the safety and health of our citizens. That’s something we’ll be committed to in the future.”

In his first address as EPA administrator, Pruitt expanded on this idea of cooperation, specifically among between environmental protection and energy production or job creation.

“We as an agency and we as a nation can be both pro-energy and jobs and pro-environment,” he said, according to The Guardian. “We don’t have to choose between the two.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.