EPA Chief Loses a Round in Court on Release of Climate Change Studies

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies on Capitol Hill in May. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies on Capitol Hill in May. Andrew Harnik/AP

A federal judge on Friday scolded Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt for failing to respond to a nonprofit’s Freedom of Information Act request for climate change studies Pruitt claimed bolstered his skeptical views.

The ruling favoring Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility stemmed from comments Pruitt made on the CNBC TV show “Squawk Box” back in March 2017, in which he said “I would not agree” that human activity adding carbon dioxide to the air “is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” He added that “there is tremendous disagreement about of [sic] the impact” of “human activity on the climate.”

PEER the next day filed a FOIA request for the studies Pruitt relied on in reaching his conclusions. But EPA failed to respond by the statutory deadline or begin a related search through agency studies. EPA argued that the FOIA request was “vague” and “unclear,” saying there is no public interest in such studies because “there is no agency decision implicit in the administrator’s remarks on a talk show.”

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The agency also argued that the suit is “a trap” in the form of an improper “interrogation” and a “fishing expedition” to explore Pruitt’s “personal opinion,” PEER said in its release.

On Friday, Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia called EPA’s objections “a reach too far” and “not persuasive.” The judge wrote that “EPA’s strained attempt to raise an epistemological smokescreen will not work here to evade its obligations under the FOIA.”

In requiring an EPA response by July 11, she added, “Particularly troubling is the apparent premise of this agency challenge to the FOIA request, namely: that the evidentiary basis for a policy or factual statement by an agency head, including about the scientific factors contributing to climate change, is inherently unknowable.”

PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, noting that Pruitt was on TV identified as the EPA administrator without qualifying that he was opining personally, said, “The beauty of FOIA is that a government agency can run but ultimately can’t hide…. This suit forces EPA to determine whether Mr. Pruitt’s statements had a factual basis or were full of hot air.”

Also on Monday, Pruitt learned that he is facing continued pressure from lawmakers on the issue of whether he misused federal employees’ time by tasking one of his top aides with working with real estate agents to find him lodging in the District Columbia. Newly released testimony by his aide Millan Hupp showed that her duties at one point included finding the administrator a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel.

In a June 4 letter to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., asked for a subpoena of Pruitt’s documents related to their charges of “multiple abuses of authority in using agency staff for his own personal purposes” and violations of federal gift laws.

Including long passages of verbatim testimony from Hupp, the Democrats said her comments show Pruitt used her for personal tasks such as booking personal flights with his credit card. EPA in April dismissed such reports as the product of a disgruntled ex-employee.

They ask the chairman to require the EPA to produce documents by June 18 on the administrator’s use of staff for personal tasks.

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