Week 39: Did the EPA Chief’s Cattle Propaganda Video Break the Law?

Scott Pruitt falls out of love with suing the EPA and puts a chemical industry shill on the payroll.

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Photo of Scott Pruitt via Gage Skidmore

This week’s column is a trifecta of stories on EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt flouting the law.

Finally Some A-cow-ntability?

Two months ago Scott Pruitt, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was a special guest star in a video for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a group that represents the country’s largest meat producers and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The video urges the organization’s members to submit comments to the EPA in support of Pruitt’s efforts to undo the Clean Water Rule. The EPA chief’s appearance in the video always had a whiff of scandal about it. After all, Pruitt is responsible for protecting the environment, while the members of the NCBA have a long history of violating laws that protect our air and water from agricultural pollution. Now it turns out that Pruitt might have broken the law himself.

Top-ranking Democrats on four committees with oversight responsibility for the EPA asked the Government Accountability Office last week to review whether Pruitt violated government ethics rules by using taxpayer dollars to fly to the event where the cattle industry video was filmed. Government officials are forbidden from spending government funds “for publicity or propaganda purposes, and for the preparation, distribution or use of any kit, pamphlet, booklet, publication, radio, television, or film presentation designed to support or defeat legislation pending before the Congress.”

The EPA and Pruitt have so far remained mum on the accusation. Pruitt’s silence, though, isn’t exactly surprising since he generally speaks only to Big Ag, Big Oil, and Fox News.

So . . . Suing the EPA Is Bad Now?

While attorney general of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt seemed to drag the EPA into court every time the agency did something to upset his patrons, the oil and gas industry. It’s fair to say no one is more famous for suing the EPA than Pruitt. There is, therefore, a certain irony in his announcement this week that the agency will no longer participate in the practice known to some as “sue and settle,” in which outside groups bring the agency to court to force it to comply with its own rules or the laws established by Congress.

Let’s be very clear about the tradition Pruitt is trying to end. When the EPA settles lawsuits, it’s usually because the agency has broken the law or fallen short of its obligations. In other words, the EPA does not settle lawsuits when it believes it is in the right. The agency, of course, has fought many cases brought by environmental groups, including NRDC, up and down the court system.

Pruitt and his allies argue that the agency’s history of settling meritorious lawsuits, and paying the fees of the attorneys who proved the agency wrong, somehow creates a problem. For example, Daren Bakst of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, told the Washington Post, “You want to eliminate the financial incentives for these groups to bring these actions.”

Eliminate the incentive for citizens to hold the EPA accountable for failing to follow the law? That only makes sense if you start from the premise that the EPA shouldn’t enforce the country’s environmental laws. And once you understand that simple line of logic, Pruitt’s motivations become very clear. He views upholding environmental laws and regulations as an inconvenience rather than the core of his job.

Civil rights groups sue the Department of Justice when it fails to enforce civil rights laws. Patient advocacy groups sue Medicare when it fails to enforce health care laws. Environmental groups sue the EPA when it fails to enforce environmental laws. It’s a pretty effective system for ensuring the laws are carried out. Perhaps too effective for someone who is looking to undermine them.

Compensation Without Confirmation

On Tuesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee indefinitely postponed its confirmation vote for Michael Dourson, President Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. (If you read this column regularly, you’ll remember Dourson as the off-the-wall nominee who weaves pro-chemical advocacy into his Christ-focused historical fiction.)

Why is Dourson’s nomination on ice? Prior to the vote, the committee’s top-ranking Democrat, Tom Carper, asked Dourson to answer several questions in writing. Dourson refused to answer, instead supplying Carper with boilerplate language. For example, Dourson answered the first four questions with the exact same answer: “If confirmed, I commit to work with Administrator Pruitt and his team to ensure strict compliance with all legal and ethical obligations.”

These were not trick questions. Carper asked such softballs as whether chemical safety science should be “shielded from political influence.” There’s a simple answer to that question (“Yes”), but Dourson apparently didn’t want to be boxed in like that.

Refusing to answer questions is obviously Dourson’s confirmation strategy. He also failed to give virtually any substantive responses during his hearing earlier this month. When asked whether he agreed with the EPA’s current assessment that petcoke is hazardous to health, Dourson said, “I’m not really ready to answer this question.” (By the way, Koch Industries paid Dourson to study the health effects of petcoke. This goes a long way toward explaining his reticence.)

Dourson’s stonewalling may be the reason the committee postponed his confirmation; rumors are now swirling that Dourson doesn’t have the votes. If that’s true, it’s a rare sign of sanity in the current political environment. Dourson is a cartoonishly unqualified steward of our national chemical safety standards.

That hasn’t stopped Pruitt from hiring him, though. Although Dourson is unconfirmed and may never be confirmed, E&E News revealed this week that Pruitt is already paying Dourson for his advice.

No shock there. Dourson has shown contempt for science, contempt for ethics, and now contempt for the Senate. He’s perfect for Pruitt’s EPA.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

onEarth Story

The EPA chief puts cows ahead of clean water, the monuments mystery, ExxonMobil’s history of denial, and more science censorship.

Southeast Dispatch

For drinking water, flood control, climate defense, habitat protection, fishing, swimming, and, of course, craft beer.

onEarth Story

Reading Pruitt’s Outlook calendar; Trump’s unholy pick for the EPA’s toxics office.

Policy Primer

Petroleum coke, typically stored outdoors in big open piles, can blow right into nearby homes and cause serious health problems. Unsurprisingly, communities are fighting Big Oil to keep this noxious material out of their backyards.

onEarth Story

Charles and David Koch think you can’t handle the truth.

Join Us