By Chris White
Environmental activists at the Sierra Club are turning their sights on new Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler as the former energy lobbyist picks up where President Donald Trump’s former agency chief left off.
Sierra Club inundated the agency with waves upon waves of public records requests into the whereabouts and communication Oklahoma Republican Scott Pruitt had with energy companies when he ran the EPA. They eventually sued the Trump administration when the agency failed to fork over records fast enough.
The group shared the documents with reporters from The Washington Post and others who then published stories about Pruitt’s spending habits — he was forced to step down in June as the reports took effect. The Sierra Club is now targeting Wheeler, who once lobbied on behalf of Murray Energy, a company headed by a prominent Trump supporter.
Activists filed an amendment to a lawsuit the Sierra Club leveled against the EPA in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, asking a judge to release more communications from agency staff.
“With these FOIAs, we’re keeping an eye on their external communication, which will allow us to see how they’re getting information, how they’re making decisions,” Sierra Club senior attorney Elena Saxonhouse told WaPo Thursday. “That was the same approach that we took with the Pruitt FOIA, and it’s really the same strategy here.”
She added: “There is still a lot of people at EPA there to carry out the agenda of granting industry wish lists.” Saxonhouse’s group is seeking the records of 25 more staffers with its suit — she also believes Wheeler’s association with Murray Energy among others will provide Sierra Club with as much content as did requests targeting Pruitt.
Sierra Club and other activist groups have listed off several victories against the EPA’s regulatory pullback. For instance, the agency withdrew a “no action assurance” notice that delayed enforcement of an Obama-era regulation limiting the sale of glider kits — refurbished truck engines placed into new bodies.
Environmentalists have reason to target the EPA after Pruitt took aim at a legal practice that conservatives criticized as giving outside activists control of the regulatory process.
Pruitt issued a directive in 2017 curbing the number of cases EPA settles with outside activist groups that file so-called “citizen suits.” Outside groups, especially environmentalists, file citizen suits to force a federal agency to begin the rule-making process.
During the settlement process, environmentalists and government lawyers get to set new timetables for new regulations. States, industry groups and other third parties are largely left out of the settlement process. The Sierra Club was one of the chief beneficiaries of the legal fees activist groups received from the practice.
Millions of dollars in taxpayer money were awarded to Sierra Club and others for EPA litigations between 1995 and 2010. Earthjustice received roughly $4.6 million in fees, while the Sierra Club shoveled in nearly $1 million $966,687, according to a 2011 Government Accountability Office report. Most of this was paid to environmental attorneys in connection to lawsuits filed under the Clean Air Act.
Activists think they have already landed on a winning issue against Wheeler. The new EPA administrator has taken three meetings with former clients that “may have violated the Trump administration’s ethics pledge,” E&E News reported Friday. It remains to be seen whether the Sierra Club’s moves against Wheeler will be as successful as their fight against Pruitt.
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