In response to a judge’s order, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office on Feb. 21 released 7,564 pages of emails, many of which reveal the close relationship EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt had with a number of energy companies and lobbyists for the industry when he was attorney general. (EPA did not respond to a request for comment.)
The Oklahoma Attorney General’s office had withheld the emails prior to Pruitt’s confirmation, despite Open Records Act requests filed by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) as long as two years ago. The center subsequently filed a lawsuit, and Judge Aletia Haynes Timmons of the Seventh District Court in Oklahoma ruled that the emails had to be turned over.
“Despite repeated attempts by Pruitt and the Oklahoma AG’s office to stonewall CMD and the public, 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,” said Nick Surgey, research director at the Center for Media and Democracy. “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.”
The Oklahoma Attorney General’s office withheld additional documents, claiming they were exempted or privileged. They submitted them to Judge Timmons for review. A number of other documents were redacted, and CMD says it will ask for the court to review those as well. On Feb. 27, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office has been ordered to deliver records related to five outstanding requests by CMD.
“We will keep fighting until all of the public records involving Pruitt’s dealings with energy corporations are released – both those for which his office is now asserting some sort of privilege against public disclosure and the documents relevant to our eight other Open Records Act requests,” said Surgey.
According to CMD’s review of the emails, the oil and gas lobby group American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), which issued a statement in support of Pruitt as EPA administrator, coordinated opposition in 2013 to both the Renewable Fuel Standard Program and ozone limits with Pruitt’s office. AFPM provided Pruitt with a template language for an Oklahoma petition, noting “this argument is more credible coming from a state.” Later that year, Pruitt did file opposition to both the RFS and ozone limits.
In a New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning series in 2014, Eric Lipton exposed what CMD calls the “close relationship between Devon Energy and Scott Pruitt, and highlighted examples where Devon Energy drafted letters that were sent by Pruitt under his own name.”
In one of the newly released emails, Bill Whitsett, a lobbyist for Devon Energy, was asked by then-Deputy Solicitor General Clayton Eubanks to offer suggested edits to a letter that later was sent by Pruitt to the EPA in an effort to advocate against regulating methane leaks from oil and gas drilling. Eubanks later thanked Whitsett.
A month later, Eubanks emailed a different Devon employee regarding a conversation about a rule to regulate hydraulic fracking on federal land. The emails indicate Devon Energy helped revise a letter Pruitt was preparing on the rule and suggested that he include footnotes, something the letter – submitted to the Secretary of the Interior and signed by Pruitt and the attorney generals for Alabama, Alaska, Montana and West Virginia – included.
In response to that letter, Brent Rockwood, Devon’s public policy and government relations director emailed: “Thanks for putting the AG letter into action. I think that this letter will make a strong statement and real difference.”
Another email revealed correspondence between Pruitt’s office and Koch Industries and its political network. The political network founded by Charles G. and David H. Koch is comprised of some 300 donors and contributes to candidates and efforts that support deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy. The email, sent in August 2013 to Pruitt and an Oklahoma lawmaker from Matt Ball, an executive at the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, stated in part: “Thank you to your respective bosses and all they are doing to push back against President Obama’s EPA and its axis with liberal environmental groups to increase energy costs for Oklahomans and American families across the states. You both work for true champions of freedom and liberty!”
In her ruling, Judge Timmons chastised the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office for its “abject failure” to abide by the Oklahoma Open Records Act. She gave the office until Feb. 21 to turn over more than 2,500 emails it withheld from CMD’s January 2015 records request, and ordered the office to turn over an undetermined number of documents responsive to CMD’s five additional open records requests outstanding between November 2015 and August 2016 by February 27.
“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,” said Arn Pearson, general counsel for CMD. “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.”
In a statement, the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office claimed it went “above and beyond what is required under the Open Records Act and produced thousands of additional documents that, but for the court’s order, would typically be considered records outside the scope of the act,” adding that despite what it called “politically motivated allegations,” it remains committed “to the letter and spirit” of the Open Records Act.
“There has never been a nominee for EPA administrator opposed so strongly by environmental and public health advocates, scientists and hundreds of current and former EPA officials,” commented Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. “Considering the unprecedented opposition to this nominee and the potential bombshell looming in those emails, the public deserved much better from the Senate. Americans have a right to know: Will Scott Pruitt will be working for them, or will he, in effect, continue working for the fossil fuel industry?”