Sound and Fury: NRDC E-Mails Show Advocacy, not Collusion

On November 24th, NRDC turned over to Senator David Vitter (R-LA) and Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) about 450 e-mails they had sought in their investigation into interactions between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and NRDC.  In launching their investigation in September, the two had demanded all communications between NRDC and EPA concerning two issues -- NRDC’s proposal for how to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants, and Pebble Mine, a gold mine in Alaska that will need a permit under the Clean Water Act.

Today, Senator Vitter released some of the NRDC e-mails, along with some he had received from EPA.  (This is the third time Vitter has released e-mails related to this investigation that were handed over by EPA.)  Vitter, per usual, issued a press statement that relies on twisted readings and heavy-handed innuendo to argue that routine exchanges and known relationships amount to some kind of illicit “collusion.”  The charges evaporate as one reads them.

NRDC has made clear from the outset that we consider this broad investigation an illegitimate fishing expedition designed to intimidate advocates of policies that Senator Vitter disagrees with.  (See my previous blogs here and here.)  The investigation is a dangerous precedent that represents a threat to anyone on any part of the political spectrum who is seeking to affect the policies of a federal agency, a fundamental activity in a democracy. 

In the investigative letter and his press releases, Senator Vitter has thrown around the word “colluding” to describe the most innocent, everyday interactions between EPA and NRDC, leaving us to wonder if there is any form of advocacy the two would find legitimate, other than perhaps putting out a press release or filing a formal comment in response to a notice in the Federal Register.  No standard advocacy activity seems legitimate in his eyes – every meeting and call is suspect – at least if you disagree with policy positions espoused by Senator Vitter.  He hasn’t complained about the meetings or communications EPA has had with corporations or their advocates on these very same issues.

Despite our view of the inquest, NRDC, from the outset, has been cooperating with the investigators, who have also demanded the same documents and more from EPA.  We kept the investigators abreast of our efforts to retrieve the e-mails; collecting those materials is a time-consuming and sometimes arduous process, and after an intensive document search we turned over a set of e-mails last month.  Frankly, there is generally little choice but to comply with a Congressional document request – that’s why it’s a potent tool of intimidation, and so dangerous to abuse.    

What Senator Vitter would say about our e-mails was easy to predict since there’s no communication between NRDC and EPA that he hasn’t somehow seen as open to attack.  But the burden of proof should be on him to explain what’s wrong with assiduously working to affect environmental policy, and what the Senator would like to see other than the silencing of groups promoting action on climate change.      

Here’s what the e-mails actually reveal.  They show ongoing communication between NRDC and EPA on climate change. Most of these communications involve NRDC trying to set up calls or meetings with EPA, and they show EPA responding to complaints that it isn’t being sufficiently responsive.  (Indicating that NRDC was complaining about not getting information is a funny way to demonstrate “collusion.”) 

The e-mails show EPA setting up briefings for NRDC, along with other groups, on things the agency is about to release publicly.  This should hardly be startling; it’s a routine way of doing business.  And, of course, overall, the communications concern a climate change proposal from NRDC that we made public, and a climate change proposal from EPA that it made public.  (NRDC thinks that proposal, while a great advance, needs to go further, and on Dec. 1 submitted and publicly released our formal comments urging that the proposal be strengthened.)

And what about the e-mail from NRDC’s David Hawkins that Vitter waves around in his press release as if he’s uncovered a murder weapon?  In the e-mail, Hawkins suggested that EPA follow a process that the agency had used under President George W. Bush, and pointed out that the process was likely to pass court muster.  (NRDC defending a Bush-era process!  Maybe that’s the collusion.)  Adding to the irony, EPA actually has not heeded NRDC’s advice on this matter.  Vitter is never deterred in his charges by evidence that EPA has not taken NRDC’s suggestions; apparently, it’s collusion just to be in touch.

Vitter is also misleading in his tendentious reading of the Hawkins e-mail.  The e-mail did not suggest foisting a “one-size-fits-all” plan on the states.  The e-mail was about when EPA should develop the federal plan that’s required by law – a federal plan that would be used only if a state failed to come up with an acceptable plan of its own.  (And even the federal plan wouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach; each state would have its own carbon pollution target based on its energy profile.)  States retain all the latitude granted to them under the law.  The states would just have more information on what federal plan would take effect if a state failed to act.  One has to conclude that the Vitter spin on this e-mail either reflects ignorance of the law or a deliberate attempt to misinterpret NRDC’s suggestion. 

Senator Vitter may not like it that NRDC and EPA shared ideas, but that doesn’t make an activity illegitimate.  As we’ve noted before, his fundamental gripe is that an Administration publicly committed from its inception to combatting climate change is talking to a group that is publicly committed to combat climate change as one aspect of a broad effort to craft a policy to combat climate change. 

EPA was also talking to utilities and other businesses – as it should – but no one is investigating them.  As a result, Vitter can take a “blind men and the elephant” approach, trying to make NRDC’s part in the process feel like the whole thing.  But in the original story, the misperception was accidental and comic; the men were not purposely blinded and told it was an ugly elephant so that they’d purposely come away with the wrong impression.

NRDC is in the business of pushing action on climate change.  An Administration that is interested in acting on climate change was interested in hearing and discussing our ideas, but it made its own decisions and kept its own counsel.  It doesn’t take an investigation to know that.