The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is pushing back against a New York Times article suggesting the agency was scaling back enforcement efforts at the behest of the oil and gas industry.
NYT reporter Eric Lipton wrote President Donald Trump’s administration “has adopted a more lenient approach than the previous two administrations — Democratic and Republican — toward polluters,” based on data given to him by a former President Barack Obama administration official.
“Confidential internal EPA documents show that the enforcement slowdown coincides with major policy changes ordered by Mr. Pruitt’s team after pleas from oil and gas industry executives,” Lipton reported.
Lipton also claimed that Administrator Scott Pruitt took away regional officials’ “authority to order certain air and water pollution tests, known as requests for information, without receiving permission from Washington.”
Overall, the article takes a negative tone against Pruitt, and overwhelmingly quotes Pruitt critics.
EPA fired back, saying in a press release there “is not only no reduction in EPA’s commitment to ensure compliance with our nation’s environmental laws, but a greater emphasis on compliance in the first place.”
The EPA said Lipton’s account “distorted the facts” on its enforcement efforts.
Pruitt “has not directed EPA staff to decrease their enforcement efforts and no request to gather enforcement information has been denied,” EPA said in its release on Sunday.
Lipton and Pruitt’s EPA have a rocky relationship, to say the least. Lipton has been reporting on Pruitt since at least 2014 when he published an article detailing a supposedly “secret alliance” between Pruitt — a former Oklahoma attorney general who worked with oil and gas companies to defeat EPA regulations.
Things haven’t gotten better since then. “No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman told Lipton in an email before he published a story in October.
EPA is once again pushing back against Lipton’s reporting, saying NYT’s “methodology masks the decline of enforcement that occurred over the course of the last administration, which saw a reduction in both the civil and criminal enforcement programs.”
Lipton reported on Sunday that EPA has sought civil penalties “about 39 percent of what the Obama administration sought and about 70 percent of what the Bush administration sought” in the first nine months of taking office.
Pruitt’s EPA has only demanded companies pay $1.2 on retrofits to mitigate pollution, Lipton reported. Lipton expanded on existing work done by former Obama EPA enforcement official Cynthia Giles.
It’s all part of Pruitt’s “cooperative federalism” focus, whereby EPA lets states take the lead in certain areas of enforcement. EPA also puts a greater emphasis on working to bring facilities into compliance instead of levying huge fines.
“Unless the activity is criminal, we focus more on bringing people back into compliance,” EPA said in the release. “This means that EPA Regions share work with the states, and Regions take both formal and informal enforcement actions.”
Lipton did note this in his piece, but he also reported current and former officials said “the new direction has left many employees feeling frozen in place, and demoralized, particularly in the regional offices, which have investigators who are especially knowledgeable of local pollution threats.”
Lipton reported that “some lawyers suggest, are giving violators an upper hand in negotiating with the EPA.”
EPA also said by comparing the first year of each administration, Lipton masked the decline in enforcement actions the tail years of the Obama administration.
EPA said the Obama administration went “from about 3,700 each of case initiations and case conclusions in FY2009, down to about 2,400 each of case initiations and conclusions in FY2016.”
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