The Pruitt Emails: A Natural Gas Ventriloquism Act

Part 1 of a two-part series

As Oklahoma Attorney General, Scott Pruitt effectively rented out the state’s seal to the oil, gas, and coal industries, his recently-disclosed emails show. 

It was a convenient arrangement. An up-and-coming politician curried favor and financial support for campaigns and other activities by echoing industry arguments against federal clean air and clean water safeguards, and by suing the Environmental Protection Agency to block those safeguards some 14 times. 

The emails reveal ties to industry that are worth a closer look especially since Pruitt, now the new EPA Administrator, is showing signs of continuing the same cozy relationships with the industries he regulates, and with the “fossil energy AGs” (as they were aptly dubbed in one of the emails) that are still suing the agency he now heads. 

Tim Hurst, Flickr

The outlines of his “secretive alliance” with energy producers and corporate donors have been known since a seminal New York Times exposé in 2014. We learned a lot more from last month’s court-ordered release of more than 7,000 pages of emails to and from the companies and Pruitt’s office. 

The emails show not episodic, one-off contacts, but symbiotic relationships carried on over long periods. 

Two email chains illustrate the recurring pattern: Industry lobbyists seek out the Oklahoma AG to carry their water in a fight with the EPA. The AG’s staff responds that he’s willing but needs help to bring him up to speed on the issue. 

Trump Watch: NRDC tracks the Trump administration’s assaults on the environment

The industry representatives tutor Pruitt and his staff, and even draft the letter or comments they’d like him to put on the state letterhead. They coach Pruitt’s staff on how to file his papers with the feds, and even on how to request meetings or phone calls with officials in Washington. 

Then they congratulate them on a job well done, and along the way, they make contributions to his campaigns and affiliated organizations.

We look here at his ties with natural gas giant Devon Energy. In a second post we examine his dealings with an oil and petrochemical trade association.

Devon Energy uses Attorney General Pruitt to fight BLM and EPA safeguards against dangerous methane leakage from the oil and gas industry

This ventriloquist act was on full display when Devon Energy enlisted Pruitt to fight a Bureau of Land Management proposal to regulate hydraulic fracturing on federal land.  So too was Devon’s provision of financial rewards for Pruitt’s support.

The 2014 New York Times article revealed the early phases of Devon’s effort to enlist the Republican Governors Association and the Republican Attorneys General Association in their cause. The Times reported that in mid-November 2012, Bill Whitsitt, Devon’s Executive Vice President of Public Affairs, told Pruitt’s office: “I’ve learned that we’re having an effect—and may be able to have more, perhaps even to having the rule withdrawn or shifted to almost a reporting-only one.”

One week later, Brent Rockwood, Devon’s Director of Government Affairs, wrote Pruitt’s staff: “As promised, we are sending you the attached draft of the RGA/RAGA follow-up letter to President Obama opposing BLM’s proposed rule.” With very few changes, Pruitt signed that letter on behalf of the RAGA, along with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal for the RGA, and sent it off to Washington. 

The newly released Oklahoma emails show how the Devon-Pruitt relationship continued and deepened. In January 2013, Devon’s Bill Whitsitt emailed Oklahoma Solicitor General Patrick Wyrick: “I just let General Pruitt know that BLM is going to propose a different version of its federal lands hydraulic fracturing rule thanks to input received—thanks for the help on this! We’ll see the new proposal sometime next week, I believe, and we’ll be back in touch on potential next steps.”

And indeed they were. A few weeks later, Whitsitt requested his executive assistant to “find and send to [Pruitt’s Chief of Staff] Melissa Houston the appropriate contact for AG Pruitt’s folks to use in requesting a meeting with the head of OMB’s OIRA or designee to visit about the BLM Rule,” which she did. (The OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs reviews agencies’ regulatory proposals before they may be published for public comment.) 

In March Whitsitt emailed Sarah Lenti, a Republican political consultant, as well as Wyrick and Houston from Pruitt’s staff:

Sarah – To follow up on my conversations with Attorney General Pruitt and you, I believe that a meeting—or perhaps more efficient, a conference call—with OIRA (the OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Analysis) on the BLM rule should be requested right away. The attached draft letter (or something like it that Scott if comfortable talking from and sending to the acting director to whom the letter is addressed) could be the basis for the meeting or call.

Melissa Houston replied the same day: “Thanks Bill—we will take a look and start working on a draft.”

On March 12, 2013, Whitsitt’s executive assistant sent Houston, Lenti, and Wyrick detailed instructions on how to submit the letter to OMB. Two weeks later, an email from Clayton Eubanks, the Oklahoma Deputy Solicitor General, confirmed to Whitsitt that Pruitt had sent the letter to OMB. Eubanks asked Whitsitt for guidance on how to find the re-proposed rule in the Federal Register and on when the public comment period would end. Whitsitt helpfully coached the AG’s office in the federal procedures and added new requests:

The re-proposed rule is actually in the review stage at OIRA (OMB’s Office of Information and regulatory Analysis) prior to a version being approved for a second round of public comment. Our goal is to have input to OIRA with a goal of its directing BLM to completely do away with the present thrust. It is possible that OIRA will conclude its review very soon, hence our asks that calls be made to the head of OMB and/or OIRA pretty quickly. Hope this helps. I’ve attached the leaked version of the re-proposal that we’re working from. (Emphasis added.)

Eubanks replied, “Thank you Bill, this helps! As you know, in addition to the letter we are trying to get a call with OMB setup,” to which Whitsitt said, “Wonderful!” and asked for any intel the AG’s office could gather.

The beat goes on.  In June 2013, Devon’s Brent Rockwood gave Pruitt’s staff a draft letter the company hoped numerous attorneys general would submit in opposition to the BLM rule. Rockwood followed up in July:

[O]ur legal team took another review of the AG letter, and a good recommendation was made to include footnotes to source the quotes/legal arguments. The attached version is the same one I originally sent to you, and which we just discussed, with the exception of the added footnotes.

Thanks for putting the AG letter into action, and I think that this letter will make a strong statement and a real difference. Do you think that we will get any Democrats to sign the letter? Also, when you finalize the document and send it out, can I please get a copy for my records?

Thanks again for your help, and let me know if you have any questions.” (Emphasis added.)

In August 2013 Eubanks sent the final letter to Rockwood: “Attached is the State AG's sign on letter regarding BLM's hydraulic fracturing ruled I mailed today and submitted at regulations.gov. Thank you for your guidance and assistance in getting this letter out.”

Devon Energy also used Pruitt to oppose EPA limits on methane emissions from oil and gas development. In January 2013, Whitsitt warned the Oklahoma AG’s office that methane regulation could be forthcoming, and suggested: “Let’s think about some input to EPA and OMB that might warn them that AGs from producing states will be ready to engage....Let us see what that might look like and then we’ll be back in touch.” (Emphasis added.)  

Whitsitt followed up in March:

Attached is a potential first-cut draft of a letter a (bipartisan if possible?) group of AGs might send to the acting EPA administrator and some others in the Administration in response to the NE [Northeast] states’ notice of intent to sue for more E&P [exploration and production] emission regulation.

It would be a shot across the bow, warning EPA not to not go down a negotiated-rulemaking or wink-at-a sue-and-settle tee-up process. If sent, I’d suggest that it be made public, at least to the Hill and to policy community publications.

It seems to me this would also be a logical outgrowth of the fossil energy AGs meeting and could be powerful with a number of signers. It is also the kind of thing that in the future could be run through the clearinghouse we discussed.

Please let me know what you and General Pruitt think, or if we can help further. (Emphasis added.)

On May 1, 2013, Deputy Solicitor General Clayton Eubanks sent Whitsitt a “final draft” of the Attorneys General sign-on letter for Devon Energy to review; the same day, Whitsitt responded providing redline changes and “further improvements from one of our experts.”

The next afternoon, Brent Rockwood followed up with Eubanks “to see if you needed anything else from the Devon team. Also, when is AG Pruitt planning to send the letter?” Eubanks replied and attached the final version of the letter, thanking Whitsitt and Rockwood for all their help. Rockwood replied: “Clayton: I’m glad the Devon team could help, and thanks for all of your work on this.”

On March 31, 2014, Devon Energy donated $125,000 to the above-mentioned Republican Attorneys General Association. RAGA—a tax-exempt 527 organization that can raise unlimited funds from individual and corporate donors—seeks to elect GOP state attorneys general and provides support for them once in office. RAGA operated for many years as part of the Republican State Leadership Committee, but became a separate legal entity in January 2014. Pruitt served as Chairman of RAGA from November 2011 to November 2013, and was a member of the Executive Committee from November 2013 to November 2015.

Devon’s 2014 contribution earned it entry to RAGA’s “Edmund Randolph Club,” which allowed the company special access to the member AGs through events, meetings, briefings, and more. Devon was also a regular donor to the Republican State Leadership Committee, contributing more than $3.5 million since 2004.

Devon Energy also contributed to Pruitt’s PACs, including $5,000 to Oklahoma Strong Leadership PAC in March 2015 and $5,000 to Liberty 2.0 in September 2016. Both PACs were shut down the week of Pruitt’s confirmation hearing; according to FEC reports for Liberty 2.0 and Oklahoma Strong, most of their remaining funds were transferred to pro-Trump super PAC Future45.

The show goes on. In Act 2, the oil refiners get in on the game. 

About the Authors

David Doniger

Director, Climate & Clean Air program

Lissa Lynch

Staff Attorney, Climate & Clean Air program

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