Scott Pruitt Is the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Manchurian Candidate

Soon-to-be-released emails may show just how deep the newly confirmed EPA administrator’s ties go.

Kate Aronoff

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) questions Scott Pruitt, now confirmed EPA head, on his ties to the oil and gas industry at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on January 18. (Stephen J. Boitano/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Email exchanges between the oil and gas indus­try and Scott Pruitt, the new­ly mint­ed head of the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA), might pose a big­ger threat to nation­al secu­ri­ty and human life than Gen. Michael Flynn’s con­ver­sa­tions with a Russ­ian diplo­mat. The ques­tion is whether they’ll receive any­where near the same lev­el of airtime.

Would there be a bigger uproar from the press and the Democratic establishment if the emails had been with Russian officials?

Last Thurs­day, an Okla­homa court ordered the state’s attor­ney general’s office to turn over as many as 3,000 emails between Pruitt and var­i­ous fos­sil fuel inter­ests, includ­ing extrac­tion com­pa­nies and lob­by­ing groups. Today, those emails are set to be released.

The rul­ing came a day before the U.S. Sen­ate vot­ed on Pruitt’s nom­i­na­tion to head the EPA, and was the result of a suit brought by the Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union and the Cen­ter for Media and Democ­ra­cy, a Wis­con­sin-based watch­dog group. They argued that Pruitt and his office have failed to respond to mul­ti­ple open-records requests, the first of which was filed over two years ago. Despite calls from Democ­rats to delay the vote until the emails are released, Pruitt was con­firmed to lead the EPA in a 52 – 46 vote. (Two Democ­rats from extrac­tion-heavy states, Joe Manchin of West Vir­ginia and Hei­di Heitkamp of North Dako­ta, joined Repub­li­cans in their yes” vote, while Maine’s Susan Collins was the only Repub­li­can to defect and vote no.”) Asked why he chose not to delay Friday’s vote until the emails had been released and reviewed, Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Mitch McConnell (R‑Ky.) replied sim­ply, Because I choose not to.”

What­ev­er the emails say, it seems unlike­ly that Pruitt will be forced to resign as a result. Would there be a big­ger uproar from the press and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment if the emails had been with Russ­ian offi­cials? While the Russ­ian government’s ties to Trump’s team are unset­tling, few­er ques­tions and hys­ter­ics have been direct­ed to cor­po­rate influ­ence on the admin­is­tra­tion, even though this too pos­es a grave threat to Amer­i­can security.

There is also an over­whelm­ing body of sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence that it could doom us all. Fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies giv­en free reign these next four years could bring us per­ilous­ly close to a point of no return on cli­mate change. In the process, they’ll wreak hav­oc on our air and water. That all adds up to harsh­er and more dam­ag­ing storms, cities swal­lowed up by the sea and more droughts like the one that has fueled the con­flict in Syr­ia and led to upticks in extrem­ism else­where. And it’s not just pro­gres­sive cli­mate hawks that have been rais­ing alarm bells: The CIA estab­lished a secre­tive pro­gram for cli­mate research in 1992, and the Depart­ment of Defense has been releas­ing reports for well over a decade about the nation­al secu­ri­ty impli­ca­tions of cli­mate change.

We’re hav­ing an effect”

The emails in ques­tion could show Pruitt tak­ing direct orders from the indus­try most in need of rapid shrink­age if we’re to pre­vent any of the above. A pre­vi­ous trove of emails obtained by the New York Times in 2014 revealed that Pruitt had effec­tive­ly let lawyers from oil and gas com­pa­ny Devon Ener­gy pen a com­plaint to the EPA in Pruitt’s name: The attor­ney general’s staff had tak­en Devon’s draft [of the let­ter], copied it onto state gov­ern­ment sta­tionery with only a few word changes, and sent it to Wash­ing­ton with the attor­ney general’s signature.”

In one of the emails obtained by the court that year, Devon Energy’s then-direc­tor of gov­ern­ment rela­tions wrote a glow­ing review of Pruitt’s per­for­mance: I’ve learned that we’re hav­ing an effect — and may be able to have more, per­haps even to hav­ing the rule with­drawn or shifted.”

That episode wasn’t out of char­ac­ter for Pruitt. In 2013, while serv­ing as Oklahoma’s attor­ney gen­er­al, he con­vened a meet­ing in Okla­homa City for fos­sil fuel indus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives and his Repub­li­can AG col­leagues in oth­er states. Ses­sions fea­tured titles like The Oil and Gas Indus­try: Reg­u­la­to­ry Chal­lenges to Fed­er­al­ism,” and speak­ers includ­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Cono­coPhillips and Tran­scana­da, the com­pa­ny behind the Key­stone XL pipeline.

Fed­er­al­ism, by Pruitt and oth­er Repub­li­cans’ def­i­n­i­tion, is a move­ment of sorts to reduce the fed­er­al government’s abil­i­ty to reg­u­late activ­i­ties that hap­pen with­in states — espe­cial­ly extrac­tion. It’s also the rai­son detre for some­thing called the Repub­li­can Attor­neys Gen­er­al Asso­ci­a­tion (RAGA), backed to the tune of more than $2.4 mil­lion by fos­sil fuel inter­ests, includ­ing Koch Indus­tries, and an addi­tion­al near­ly $1.4 mil­lion from the Cham­ber of Com­merce. RAGA’s mis­sion: Turn as many state attor­neys gen­er­al seats as pos­si­ble red, and use them as plat­forms for indus­try-friend­ly reforms. When the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment over­steps its legal author­i­ty and takes actions that hurt our busi­ness­es and res­i­dents,” Repub­li­can Flori­da AG Pam Bon­di told the New York Times, it’s entire­ly appro­pri­ate for us to part­ner with the adverse­ly affect­ed pri­vate enti­ties in fight­ing back.”

The fos­sil fuel industry’s Manchuri­an candidate

For the last sev­er­al years, Pruitt has been an evan­ge­list of that posi­tion, suing the agency he now leads 14 times for over­reach. In 13 of those cas­es, ener­gy com­pa­nies or their lob­by­ists have been list­ed as par­ty to the suit. His finan­cial ties to the indus­try run deep, too. In Pruitt’s 2014 re-elec­tion cam­paign for Oklahoma’s attor­ney gen­er­al seat, an elec­tion in which he ran unop­posed, he col­lect­ed over $700,000 in con­tri­bu­tions, large­ly from fos­sil fuel and util­i­ty exec­u­tives. Oil mag­nate Harold Hamm ran that re-elec­tion cam­paign, and Pruitt’s list of donors reads like a who’s who of the country’s biggest oil, coal and nat­ur­al gas com­pa­nies. He was also a major part of help­ing RAGA raise $16 mil­lion in the 2014 elec­tion cycle — much of it from fos­sil fuels.

Pruitt has been as gen­er­ous to his donors as they’ve been to him. In 2011, just after tak­ing office in Okla­homa, Pruitt closed the attor­ney gen­er­al office’s envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion unit. As head of the EPA, he will head the pri­ma­ry body in the Unit­ed States with the author­i­ty to reg­u­late green­house gas­es. In line with the GOP’s agen­da, he is expect­ed to do every­thing in his pow­er to repeal the Clean Pow­er Plan, and he might even strip the EPA of its enforce­ment division.

Pruitt’s appoint­ment to the EPA, like the appoint­ment of long­time Exxon­Mo­bil CEO Rex Tiller­son as sec­re­tary of state, could give the fos­sil fuel indus­try an unprece­dent­ed lev­el of influ­ence over the White House. The indus­try, it seems, now has its own Manchuri­an can­di­date run­ning the agency assigned to reg­u­late it. The emails released today might reveal the con­nec­tions go even deep­er. This kind of cor­po­rate inter­fer­ence in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics deserves at least as much scruti­ny as the med­dling car­ried out by oth­er nations. Sad­ly, both Democ­rats and the media seem more con­tent to re-enact the Cold War than con­front the hot one in front of us.

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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