Author Archives: Martha Roberts

Pruitt listens to industry — not the public — on important decisions that affect public health

My EDF colleagues and fellow attorneys won an important victory for public health this month when the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an effort by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to suspend vital limits on oil and gas pollution. 

There’s an important detail to this story that you might have missed. Turns out the public got no opportunity to provide any feedback on Pruitt’s decision, even though it put their health at risk. Instead, Pruitt abruptly declared he was granting this suspension through a letter to industry, with no formal notice given to the public until well afterwards — and no opportunity provided for public input.   

Unfortunately, this is just one example of a consistent pattern of conduct. Again and again, Pruitt has shut the public out of key decisions while giving a direct line to industry laggards and their allies.

Public safeguards undermined without public input 

Early in his tenure, one of Pruitt’s very first actions was to withdraw a request for information on pollution levels from oil and gas facilities — acting unilaterally, with no advanced notice and no opportunity for public input.

Most of what we know about Pruitt’s decision comes from Attorney General Ken Paxton of Texas, who has battled pollution safeguards while fundraising from fossil fuel interests, mirroring Pruitt’s approach as Oklahoma Attorney General.

Paxton openly bragged about his role in driving Pruitt to eliminate this information request:

I personally handed him the letter, and the next day the rule was personally withdrawn.

While Paxton got an opportunity for input, the public never had a chance to weigh in on this decision. Not surprisingly, Pruitt’s announcement hailed the withdrawal’s benefits for the oil and gas industry while ignoring Americans’ right to know about harmful pollution from oil and gas facilities.

A pattern of shutting out everyday Americans

This practice has been repeated across different sectors and different safeguards.

Pruitt delayed the implementation of health-based limits on ground-level ozone, commonly called smog, without any opportunity for public input. The standards would prevent 230,000 childhood asthma attacks every year.

Pruitt delayed toxic wastewater standards for power plants without public input. Same for a program to manage risks of accidents at petroleum refineries and other major chemical plants.

A recent rollback request from the landfills industry called for a delay to important improvements to pollution standards that had not been substantially updated in 20 years. The request was granted via a letter from Pruitt to industry representatives with no opportunity for public comment — and formal public notice wasn’t provided until more than two weeks after the delay was granted.  

Who is guiding Pruitt’s decisions? The public is in the dark

Pruitt has made the unusual and troubling decision to end public access to his calendar and the calendar of senior EPA managers in spite of a bipartisan EPA history of making those calendars public. Without access to the calendars, it’s impossible to know who is meeting with the Administrator or his senior staff — and who is informing their decision-making.

What little information we’ve learned about his calendar is that it’s been “filled” with meetings with industry interests. Many of these meetings are with the same individuals or companies benefiting from his rollbacks. In just one example, Pruitt gathered with the American Petroleum Institute board of directors behind closed doors early in his tenure, soon before rolling back oil and gas protections.

Pruitt’s intertwined relationship with major industry interests goes back to before he became EPA Administrator to his time as the Attorney General of Oklahoma. In a 2014 exposé, he was documented copying and pasting industry requests and sending them to EPA, nearly word for word, on Oklahoma Attorney General letterhead. Pruitt has defended this conduct as “representative government in my view,” begging the question of who Pruitt thinks he’s supposed to represent.

Industry representatives in senior leadership

Pruitt isn’t only hearing from industry voices outside the agency. Within EPA, his leadership team is filled with former industry representatives.

In just one recent example, the agency’s new senior deputy general counsel, Erik Baptist, was previously a top lawyer at the American Petroleum Institute — which has been lobbying, among other things, to repeal EPA safeguards that reduce harmful methane pollution from oil and gas operations. Baptist is just the latest example of the pervasive conflicts of interest among Pruitt’s senior staff.

Accountable to the law 

Fortunately, Pruitt’s practice of leaving the public in the dark is getting pushback. The recent D.C. Circuit decision in the oil and gas methane case is an important step in holding him accountable to the law. Pruitt must listen to all voices — including those of members of the public — as he makes decisions with serious implications for public health and welfare. 

 

Posted in EPA litgation, News, Policy, Setting the Facts Straight| Leave a comment

Scott Pruitt keeps Americans in the dark on his activities

In the few months of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt’s tenure, we’ve already seen ample cause for concern when it comes to how he spends his time – a steady stream of meetings with major industry, together with rollbacks that harm communities and put children’s health at risk.

Last week, we learned that Administrator Pruitt gathered with the American Petroleum Institute board of directors at the Trump Hotel early in his tenure, just weeks before carrying out a host of actions to benefit oil and gas polluters. Just one of those actions — delaying implementation of a national smog health standard — will alone will result in 230,000 more asthma attacks for kids.

These actions have been taken with no meaningful public input or engagement. Meanwhile, the intermittent information we glean about Administrator Pruitt’s calendar and his schedule underscores his extensive meetings and visits with major industry.

Underlying these distressing developments, there’s something even more fundamental at play. How has the American public learned how Administrator Pruitt, a taxpayer-funded public servant, spends his time? How have we gotten information on the company he keeps?

Under past EPA Administrators, the calendars of senior managers — including the Administrator — were released to the public via accessible, concurrent platforms.

Troublingly, Scott Pruitt has ended this practice. We’ve only gotten information about his activities through intermittent information shared with the press, or months after the fact through time-consuming, burdensome Freedom of Information Act requests.

EDF calls on Pruitt to follow long-standing EPA practice and make his calendar public

EPA has an important job to do on behalf of the American public — protecting our health and welfare from dangerous pollution. Without timely information on the activities and schedule of Administrator Pruitt and his senior staff, members of the public cannot have full confidence that EPA’s leadership is working on their behalf.

Administrator Pruitt’s lack of transparency raises serious questions about potential abuse of EPA’s limited resources for activity that contravenes or is in serious tension with important legal and ethical requirements.

That’s why today EDF called on Pruitt to make his schedule, and that of his senior officials, available to the public on a widely accessible platform. Administrator Pruitt should immediately carry out this fundamental transparency practice, followed by EPA administrations of both parties. EDF is simultaneously submitting a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain this information — a public record — in order to assure that the public at least obtains more up to date information on Pruitt’s activities.

EPA is supposed to operate “in a fishbowl”

The important transparency practice of sharing senior policy leaders’ schedules has a long history at EPA.

In 1983, William Ruckelshaus — the first EPA Administrator — was brought back to lead EPA by President Ronald Reagan in order to restore public trust after the scandal-plagued tenure of Administrator Anne Gorsuch. One of Administrator Ruckelshaus’ first actions was to issue was his “Fishbowl Memo,” which vowed that EPA would “operate in a fishbowl” and “attempt to communicate with everyone from the environmentalists to those we regulate and we will do so as openly as possible.”

Ruckelshaus’ Fishbowl Memo adopted as EPA policy a number of specific activities that are the hallmark of fair and transparent government. In particular, Ruckelshaus included a commitment to share senior leadership schedules as the Memo’s very first transparency directive:

In order to make the public fully aware of my contacts with interested persons, I have directed that a copy of my appointment calendar for each week be placed in the Office of Public Affairs and made available to the public at the end of the week. The Deputy Administrator, and all Assistant Administrators, Associate Administrators, Regional Administrators, and Staff Office Directors shall make their appointment calendars available in a similar manner.

This commitment to transparency and public access to EPA calendars has continued across administrations. For example, Administrator Lisa Jackson echoed this commitment upon her arrival, writing that “[t]o keep the public fully informed of my contacts with interested persons,” she would make available to the public, every day via the EPA website, “a working copy of my appointment calendar, showing meetings with members of the public.” She directed her senior staff to do the same. Administrator Gina McCarthy and Acting Administrator Catherine McCabe similarly continued this practice.

Yet Administrator Pruitt has ended the foundational transparency measure of making his and his senior policy leaders’ schedules readily available to the public. The policy change is illustrated by these two snapshots of EPA’s website from six months apart.

EPA’s website on January 19, 2017:

And the same page today:

A true back to basics approach

Pruitt has recently made a show of focusing on “EPA Originalism” and getting EPA “Back to Basics.” We suggest he follow long-standing EPA practice and the guidance of EPA’s original Administrator, William Ruckelshaus. Pruitt should make his calendar, and those of his senior leadership, widely and promptly available to the public.

Posted in Health, News, Policy, Setting the Facts Straight| Read 1 Response

Scott Pruitt, the public has spoken – and it wants health protections, not rollbacks

Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this year, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt announced an effort to seek public input on EPA safeguards that should be revoked or rolled back to “reduce regulatory burden.”

What was the overwhelming message he heard in response?

Let EPA do its job and protect Americans from dangerous pollution.

Numerous news articles have detailed the tens of thousands of responses EPA received from individual Americans decrying Pruitt’s biased, predetermined effort to gut important safeguards. These public comments are still being uploaded onto an official website — but already there are more than 183,000 of them, and the overwhelming majority are in favor of strong EPA safeguards.

As one comment reminded Pruitt:

Future generations are counting on us to leave an environment that supports good health, and a world worth living in. Don’t jeopardize the progress that has been made by rolling back regulations that are taking us in the right direction. Your job is to protect the environment for the benefit of all, not to squander progress for the financial gain of a few.

Another citizen noted during a listening session:

I actually enjoy breathing clean air and drinking clean water and would find it quite burdensome not to.

It’s well documented that EPA safeguards are an incredible American success story, saving countless lives and improving health across the country. We’ve made tremendous strides in improving air quality, reducing toxic lead and mercury pollution, addressing acid rain, and other remarkable achievements — all while the economy has grown and added jobs.

We still have more work to do though. According to the American Lung Association, more than 125 million Americans live in communities with unhealthy levels of air pollution.

Industry pushes for rollbacks

EPA senior officials are due to present a report to Pruitt today on their progress in identifying safeguards to repeal or roll back – not even two weeks after the rushed public comment period ended.

It’s hard to know if this report will be made public, but we are starting to get a glimpse of the input that Pruitt and his team are hearing from those who oppose vital safeguards.

For instance, the American Petroleum Institute’s (API) 25-page list of requests includes weakening protections against smog and undercutting common-sense standards to curb harmful methane and toxic air pollution from oil and gas production.

API’s list also complains that EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Panel is “biased” because “it can be difficult for industry representatives to be included on the committees.”

As we wrote about in an earlier post, these industry requests come on top of an earlier solicitation by the Trump Administration for industry proposals to roll back protections — one where trade associations brazenly asked for cuts to important health studies and safeguards.

Politicians target safeguards against mercury, smog, and other dangers

One remarkable letter to EPA came from eight state politicians. As has been well documented, while Scott Pruitt was Oklahoma’s Attorney General he spearheaded an intertwined alliance between state attorneys general and major fossil fuel industries — going so far as to submit industry requests to EPA on Oklahoma letterhead and later noting that’s “actually called representative government in my view of the world.”

In the new letter, Pruitt’s attorney general allies detail a list of twenty bedrock safeguards to weaken or eliminate. These include protections against mercury pollution, smog, soot, and many others.

These eight politicians even ask EPA to reject the agency’s science-based conclusion that greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare — a conclusion based on an extensive, exhaustive record that was upheld by a federal court of appeals several years ago. Their letter makes no mention of the citizens who would be sickened and harmed by these roll backs.

The signatories are the attorneys general from Michigan, Oklahoma, Indiana, Alabama, Arkansas, West Virginia, Louisiana, and South Carolina.

Scott Pruitt: don’t put Americans’ health at risk

With EPA’s help, we’ve made remarkable progress in cleaning up our air and water. The American public just delivered a clear and overwhelming message to Scott Pruitt – don’t risk that tremendous progress, or the health of our families, by rolling back EPA safeguards.

Administrator Pruitt should listen.

Posted in Clean Air Act, Health, News, Policy, Setting the Facts Straight, What Others are Saying| Comments are closed

Regulatory Accountability Act would wrap red tape around our most important health and safety protections

(This post was co-authored by EDF legal Fellow Rosalie Winn)

New legislation introduced in the Senate threatens to undermine critical public health, safety and environmental protections through paralysis by analysis.

The Regulatory Accountability Act, recently introduced by Senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, would tie up essential safeguards in enormous amounts of red tape – putting at risk longstanding protections in child safety, food safety, auto safety, and other areas that Americans depend on and often take for granted.

If the Regulatory Accountability Act were to become law, common sense new safeguards would have to make it through a mind-boggling series of analyses before they could begin to protect Americans.

We’ve illustrated this recipe for paralysis by analysis in this diagram:

Here’s a small sample of important safety measures — recent or in progress — that would get tied up in red tape under this bill’s approach:

We’ve written before about how the Regulatory Accountability Act would stymie agencies’ ability to address public concerns.

Important protections would face time-consuming, costly new burdens – burdens that would fall on the public, on businesses, and on anyone trying to participate in the decision-making – while giving an advantage to big-money interests who can afford expensive lawyers.

The Regulatory Accountability Act would allow opponents of health and safety protections to delay and obstruct the safeguards they don’t like, while leaving all Americans more vulnerable.

Posted in Health, News, Policy| Comments are closed

Scott Pruitt wants to end his own Clean Power Plan lawsuit—but can’t set aside EPA’s duty to protect the public from climate pollution

(This post was co-authored by Tomas Carbonell)

Before he became Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt was relentless in suing to oppose the Clean Power Plan, America’s first-ever nationwide limits on carbon pollution from power plants.

So relentless, in fact, that as Attorney General of Oklahoma he brought suit four times to block these common sense, cost-effective protections—including litigating to block the proposal, before the Clean Power Plan was even finalized.

Given that history, you’d think that Pruitt would be eager to for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Court to continue the current litigation over the Clean Power Plan, which Pruitt helped initiate when he was Attorney General.

Instead, the Trump Administration launched a full-court press to stop the court’s deliberations in their tracks.

The administration filed a motion on March 28 asking the court to suspend the litigation indefinitely – almost a year after the last briefs were filed in the case, and more than six months after oral argument took place before the full en banc court.

Why the sudden aversion to the court considering the case, after such a long history of litigating?

Perhaps Pruitt was afraid that the court would see the Clean Power Plan for what it is – a common sense and achievable plan, firmly grounded in the law and in science, which responds to the most urgent environmental challenge of our time.

Pruitt repeatedly argues that the reason to repeal the Clean Power Plan is because it is “illegal.” Without a D.C. Circuit opinion, all we have are his own claims on that point – and maybe Pruitt prefers it that way, given his poor record in past legal challenges to common sense EPA safeguards.

Whatever the reason, Pruitt pressed ahead to stop the very same case he was instrumental in creating. Last week, the D.C. Circuit partially granted his request. The court put the Clean Power Plan litigation on hold for 60 days, and asked for more information so it can decide how to handle the case going forward.

EPA has a duty to protect Americans from dangerous climate pollution

While last week’s order is disappointing, it has not changed the fact that EPA has a clear duty to act under our nation’s clean air laws to protect the public from harmful climate pollution. That duty is enshrined in three separate Supreme Court opinions that confirm EPA has the authority and responsibility to address climate pollution under the Clean Air Act.

EPA’s obligation to address climate pollution under the Clean Air Act is a settled question in American law. And EPA’s history of successfully addressing climate pollution from cars and other sources speaks for itself.

The Clean Power Plan itself has a rock solid legal and technical foundation – as recognized by a huge and varied coalition of supporters including former Republican EPA Administrators, the attorneys general of eighteen states, legal experts who helped draft the Clean Air Act, and the nation’s leading experts on the power grid.

As these experts recognize, the Clean Power Plan relies on strategies that are already being deployed successfully across the power sector—continuing and amplifying a transition to low- and zero-carbon energy that is reducing climate-destabilizing pollution while bringing jobs and economic opportunities to communities across the country. America’s clean energy sector is a rapidly growing $200-billion industry that employs 3.3 million Americans.

Regardless of any legal maneuvers, the fundamental truth remains – EPA has a duty to act to protect the public from dangerous climate pollution. Given the clear and present threat that climate change poses to the well-being of communities across America, this duty is urgent.

Posted in Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, EPA litgation, News, Policy| Read 1 Response

The Misguided Regulatory Accountability Act

00001-3-e1488835368971 (1)Many of the features of the Regulatory Accountability Act render it a disastrous piece of legislation for public health, safety, and the environment. By tying up essential safeguards in enormous amounts of red tape, the legislation would covertly undermine longstanding protections for child safety, food safety, auto safety, and other broadly shared values.

But the key problem is not just that the Regulatory Accountability Act would impose needlessly convoluted, burdensome requirements on federal agencies: it is that it would impose needlessly convoluted, burdensome requirements that we know have failed in the past.

The Regulatory Accountability Act would resurrect many of the worst features of the former, failed Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). TSCA was supposed to protect the public from dangerous chemicals, but for many years—before the recent enactment of reforms aimed at curing its substantial defects—it made regulatory decision-making so burdensome, that it effectively prevented regulators from doing their jobs.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) failed attempt to regulate asbestos under the pre-reform TSCA offers a telling example of how important safeguards are stymied under this decision-making framework. Over 25 years ago, EPA had tried to employ TSCA to protect the public from asbestos. The Agency spent 10 years analyzing asbestos’ effects on health and considering policy options along with their economic implications. After this exhaustive investigation, documented in over 45,000 pages of supporting materials, EPA issued a final rule that called for a phased-in ban on the use of asbestos in commercial products.

But EPA’s efforts to protect the public were rejected. Asbestos manufacturers sued, contending that EPA’s meticulous decision-making was still inadequate to meet the onerous standards of TSCA. A court agreed, vacating the rule in 1991 on the basis that “EPA failed to muster substantial evidence to support its rule” under TSCA’s mandates—despite the Agency’s voluminous record justifying a phase-out of asbestos. Following this ordeal, EPA all but gave up, never again trying to ban a chemical under the old TSCA.

In the years following the asbestos fiasco, broad agreement began to emerge that TSCA was a failure due to its inability to protect Americans and to provide certainty to businesses. In a bid to address these deficiencies, Congress finally reformed TSCA last year through legislation that was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

The Regulatory Accountability Act would reverse this progress, with implications far beyond TSCA—major aspects of the Regulatory Accountability Act would resurrect features of the pre-reform, failed TSCA and apply them to all federal safeguards. That bears repeating:  passage of the Regulatory Accountability Act would impose requirements similar to those that had doomed the old TSCA and extend those requirements to all federal agencies, with detrimental implications for the development of new food safety requirements, veterans’ care standards, pollution controls, and other essential protections for public health, safety, and the environment. I discuss two key examples below.

First, the Regulatory Accountability Act would impose an unworkable, cost-based decision standard, setting up agencies for paralysis by analysis that would obstruct protections for Americans.

The pre-reform TSCA demanded that EPA prove it had selected the “least burdensome” regulatory option when promulgating a rule. If EPA had wanted to adopt an option any more burdensome than the “least burdensome” one—for example, banning the sale of asbestos, instead of just labeling asbestos-containing products—TSCA required that the Agency perform a full risk analysis and cost-benefit analysis of every less burdensome alternative, and prove each alternative was insufficient to address the risk. These requirements imposed evidentiary and analytic burdens on EPA that proved impossible to meet, effectively tying the Agency’s hands with respect to protecting the public from hazardous chemicals.

The newly reformed TSCA eliminated all of these problems in the service of regulatory efficiency and certainty. Under the reformed statute, EPA is required to demonstrate that it has considered key factors—including costs and risk—and has reached a rational conclusion. But it is not required to prove that its decision meets a specific cost-based decision metric, as it was under the pre-reform TSCA.

Yet the Regulatory Accountability Act would revive the pre-reform TSCA approach, imposing an onerous analytic cost-based standard for major protections. All federal agencies generally would be required to prove that their rule met the specific analytic standard laid out in the Act. The Act would also require agencies to consider and analyze substantial alternatives or other responses identified by interested persons, without imposing any clear limit on how many alternatives that would entail, and regardless of whether information concerning those alternatives was reasonably available. In addition, for major or high-impact rules, agencies would have to conduct formal cost-benefit analysis and other analyses on each such alternative. Any deviation from these nitpicky procedures, meanwhile, could prompt a court to toss out the promulgated regulation, regardless of the threat to the public as result of the regulation’s demise.

A second example of how the Regulatory Accountability Act would resurrect failed features of the pre-reform TSCA law would be through its imposition of a requirement on agencies to hold needless, burdensome public hearings. The pre-reform TSCA allowed any person to request a hearing on any rule. These hearings allowed for witnesses, cross-examinations, oral presentations, and other onerous, unnecessary hearing procedures to resolve material issues. This feature of the statute created a powerful opportunity for critics to slow down the rulemaking process, and it duplicated many other aspects of the law that already provided ample opportunity for the public to comment and provide feedback. Not surprisingly, this requirement was thoroughly rejected and excised from the new, reformed TSCA.

Nevertheless, the Regulatory Accountability Act would reinstate this failed requirement and apply it broadly to the development of all government safeguards. Under the bill, any person would be able to request a hearing on any major or high-impact rule, except in certain narrow circumstances. EPA would have to hold a hearing if any factual issue was in dispute—which is virtually always the case for someone. With this approach, attorneys would argue over science-based determinations made by agency scientists in needless show trials. Any individual seeking to delay a rulemaking could use this provision to draw out and delay protections for Americans.

The Regulatory Accountability Act may sound innocuous, but it puts our health, safety, and environment at risk. Imagine a world where efforts to update food safety requirements in the face of a pressing health threat were stymied. Or attempts to establish new protections after a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill were thwarted. Or efforts to protect the public from asbestos were derailed.

This is the world that the Regulatory Accountability Act would create, across all areas of government. This blandly titled bill is deeply flawed and deeply problematic—a sneak attack on essential protections.

This post originally appeared  on Reg Blog.

Posted in Health, Policy| Comments are closed
  • About this blog

    Expert to expert commentary on the science, law and economics of climate change and clean air.

  • Get new posts by email

    We'll deliver new blog posts to your inbox.

    Subscribe via RSS

  • Categories

  • Meet The Bloggers