“Polluting Pruitt:” A Wolf to Guard the Hen House?
Guest article by Dakota Raynes, Co-Organizer of Stop Fracking Payne County (OK)
President Trump recently tapped Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), even though Pruitt is a self-proclaimed “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” Pruitt is currently opposing investigation of Exxon Mobile’s handling of climate-change science based on the belief that climate change science is not yet settled and “debate should be encouraged in classrooms, public forums, and the halls of Congress.” Senate confirmation hearings regarding Pruitt’s nomination are currently ongoing – many questions have focused on Pruitt’s legacy as AG of OK and what that tells us about actions he might take as head of the EPA.
Pruitt’s Past as AG
Elected in 2010, Pruitt’s six-year tenure illuminates the full extent of the troubling stances he takes. For instance, he has fought against the overturn of DOMA, same-sex marriage rights, granting legal status to undocumented immigrants, the Affordable Care Act, access to safe and affordable birth control and abortions, and Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform. These actions demonstrate Pruitt’s inability to accept or implement procedures, policies, and programs supported by a majority of US residents, members of the nations’ highest courts, and even his own colleagues.
A Focus on Environmental Issues
More specifically related to environmental issues, he has openly criticized the EPA in congressional hearings and op-ed pieces. Due to his belief that the EPA frequently abuses its authority, Pruitt’s office has filed 14 antiregulatory lawsuits against the EPA. Investigative reporters uncovered that in 13 of these cases co-litigators included companies that had contributed significant amounts of money to Pruitt and/or Pruitt-affiliated political action committees (PACs). He also routinely joins lawsuits against other states. For example, Pruitt and five other Attorneys General challenged a California law banning the sale of eggs laid by hens living in cramped conditions, but a US District Judge ruled they lacked legal standing because they were representing the economic interests of a few industrial egg producers rather than the interests of their broader constituents.
Several such lawsuits are still pending, which legal experts and others claim presents a conflict of interest should Pruitt become the new Director of the EPA. When asked specifically about this issue during Senate confirmation hearings, Pruitt refused to recuse himself from the lawsuits, saying he would leave such a decision up to the EPA’s legal counsel team. Notably, across the course of his six-years as AG, Pruitt’s office has distributed more than 700 news releases announcing the office’s actions, his speeches and public appearances, and efforts to challenge federal regulations. More than 50 of these releases promoted the office’s efforts to sue the EPA, but not once has a release described actions the office has taken to enforce environmental laws or to hold violators accountable for their actions.
Potential Conflicts of Interest
In OK, Pruitt has made many choices, that when viewed together, strongly suggest that his loyalties reside with the industries that have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to his election campaigns rather than with the people he is sworn to protect. Here is a short list of the most troubling examples:
- Pruitt’s predecessor had filed suit against Tyson, Cargill, and a number of other poultry producers in OK due to inappropriate disposal of an estimated 300,000 tons of animal waste per year, which was causing toxic algae blooms along the Illinois River. But shortly after his election, Pruitt dropped the case, citing a need for more research. Some have questioned whether his decision was impacted by the fact that the poultry industry had donated at least $40,000 to his campaign that year.
- He also quickly dismantled the Attorney General’s in-house environmental protection unit, a team of four attorneys and a criminal investigator, and replaced it with the state’s first “federalism unit,” which was created to litigate against overreach by the federal government, mostly the EPA. Pruitt has repeatedly made it clear that he believes states should handle environmental issues, regardless of the fact that environmental issues frequently cause problems that cross geopolitical boundaries such as state lines (OK’s induced seismicity issue1 is a key example, more information about induced seismicity can be found here).
- In 2013, he created a coalition of 9 Attorneys General, major energy CEOs, and their lawyers and brought them all to OK for a strategizing session regarding how to stop government and citizen responses to the ills of the oil and gas industry; it was an all-expenses paid event funded by Mercatus, a right-wing think tank favored by the Koch brothers.
- Notably, the energy industry is Pruitt’s second largest campaign contributor. When he came up for re-election in 2013, he chose Harold Hamm (CEO of Continental Resources, one of the largest oil companies in OK) to co-chair his campaign. Shortly after winning reelection in 2014, Pruitt joined forces with key industry players including Oklahoma Gas and Electric and the Domestic Energy Producers Alliance (chaired by Hamm) to file several antiregulatory lawsuits, which include attempts to block the Clean Power Plan and Waters of the US rule.
- Pruitt has also served as leader of the Republican Association of Attorneys General, which has collected at least $4.2 million in donations from fossil-fuel related companies since 2013.
- Recently, local investigative reporters discovered that Pruitt’s office failed to follow a state law requiring state agencies to disclose spending on outside attorneys. Their examination illuminated that Pruitt has spent more than $1 million on legal fees since FY2012 – a total that does not include costs directly related to lawsuits against the EPA or the Affordable Care Act.
Induced-Seismicity and Wastewater Disposal
Oklahoma recently became the earthquake capital of the world due to a phenomenon referred to as injection-induced seismicity. While OK has not historically been known as a seismically active area, thousands of tremors have shaken the state since the shale gas boom began.
Several researchers have used geospatial analysis to demonstrate how these quakes are caused by the high-pressure injection of oil and gas industry wastes such as the flowback and produced water created by the unconventional oil and gas production process known as hydraulic fracturing. The map above shows where injection wells (tan dots) are located and where earthquakes (green dots) occurred from 2011-2015.
Oklahomans have been harmed by the implicitly pro-fracking stance Pruitt has taken, as evidenced by his lack of action regarding induced seismicity – as well as air, water, and soil contamination due to oil and gas industry activities. Several people, including Johnson Bridgewater (Director of OK Chapter of the Sierra Club) have noted that:
There are various places where the attorney general’s office could have stepped in to fix this overall problem…Its job is to protect citizens. Other states were proactive and took these issues on…[yet] Pruitt has been completely silent in the face of a major environmental problem for the state and its taxpayers.
Specifically, the AG’s office could have responded to the legal question of whether the state could limit or ban transport of fracking-related wastewater, sent by other states for disposal in underground injection wells in OK.
He also did nothing to address the phenomenally low earthquake insurance claim approval rate; after the 5.8M quake shook Pawnee in September of 2016, 274 earthquake damage claims were filed but only 4 paid out. Estimates of statewide approval rates generally suggest that approximately 1% of claimants receive funds to aid repairs.
Lastly, there are a number of class action lawsuits against a variety of industry actors regarding earthquake damages, yet Pruitt’s office has not entered any of these as an intervenor even though AGs in other states have done so.
Pruitt not at fault?
Pruitt was recently called out by investigative reporters who used open-records requests to reveal that letters, briefs, and lawsuits that he submitted were written in whole or in part by leading energy firms such as Devon (another of OK’s largest oil and gas companies). Pruitt’s response was that he had done nothing wrong, nothing even potentially problematic. Rather, he said, of course he was working closely with industry and isn’t that what he should be doing. Some would argue that as AG what he should be doing is working closely with the people of Oklahoma, especially those whose homes, lives, and livelihoods have crumbled under the weight of attempting to repair earthquake damage due to industry activities.
Historical AG Influence
It is important to remember, though, that what’s happening with Pruitt is not isolated. Rather, as several long-time reporters have noted, increased attention to developing beneficial relationships with AGs is a result of historical processes.
About 20 years ago more than 40 state AGs banded together to challenge the tobacco industry, which led to a historic $206 billion settlement decision. Later, Microsoft, the pharmaceutical industry, and the financial services industry each faced similar multistate challenges regarding the legality or illegality of particular business practices.
As some AGs began hiring outside law firms to investigate and sue corporations, industry leaders realized that AGs’ actions were far more powerful and immediate than those of legislative bodies. So, they began a heretofore unprecedented campaign to massively increase their influence at this level.
Several people have critiqued the ways in which such actions undermine democratic processes, prompt troubling questions about ethics, and negatively impact attorney generals’ abilities to fulfill their duties to the state and its residents.
A Mission at Risk
Those of us on the frontlines here in OK have seen just how powerful such coalitions can be, how much sway they can have on local and state officials, how they destabilize people’s faith and trust in the systems that are supposed to protect them, and how coalitions undercut people’s hope and desire to be civically engaged. The mission of the US Environmental Protection Agency is to protect human health and the environment. If confirmed to lead the EPA, it is very likely Pruitt will prioritize his relationships with industry over the health and welfare of the people and environment he’s directed to protect.
- To learn more about induced seismicity read an exclusive FracTracker two-part series from former VTSO researcher Ariel Conn: Part I and Part II. Additionally, the USGS has created an Induced Earthquakes landing page as part of their Earthquake Hazards Program.