The Energy 202: Court Ruling May Give Environmental Activists More Fodder Against EPA

Written by Dino Grandoni

Originally published on The Washington Post, January 8, 2019.


Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announces that new coal plants no longer have to meet planned, tougher, Obama era emissions standards, during a news conference at the EPA Headquarters in Washington in December. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

The Sierra Club, one of the nation’s oldest environmental organizations, led a vocal campaign to oust Scott Pruitt by helping to reveal various managerial and ethical lapses by the former Environmental Protection Agency chief.

Now with a recent court decision, the group hopes it can apply that same level of scrutiny to Pruitt’s replacement.

In a Dec. 26 ruling, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ordered the release of about 20,000 emails exchanged between industry groups and 25 Trump officials —  including acting chief Andrew Wheeler — within the next 10 months, along with calendars and other documents.

With that 10-month timeline starting as soon as the federal government fully reopens, the decision means the Sierra Club and other environmental activists expect to learn a lot more about Wheeler’s past work and that of other Trump EPA appointees over the coming year. The first batch of emails to be released, for example, concern communication between the agency and coal giant Murray Energy, for whom Wheeler once worked as a lobbyist, along with Wheeler’s former employer Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting.

The Sierra Club sued to have the records released after the EPA failed to fulfill the Freedom of Information Act requests on time. It successfully argued in court that documents concerning Wheeler, who President Trump said he wants to nominate to run the agency permanently, should be made public as soon as possible.

“This is a big win for government transparency and accountability,” said Elena Saxonhouse, senior attorney at the Sierra Club. “FOIA really requires you to get these documents to requesters on a time frame where they’re still useful.”

The court rejected arguments from the EPA that it is too overwhelmed with FOIA requests to respond by the legal deadlines. Inquires to the EPA’s Office of the Administrator, for example, jumped from 203 during fiscal 2016 to 1,045 during the following 12-month period, after Trump took office. The agency had initially asked the court to have until 2022 — halfway into the next presidential term — to complete the requests.

The Sierra Club is also seeking documents from Bill Wehrum, the former corporate lawyer chosen by Trump to head the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation; Nancy Beck, a former chemical industry lobbying now serving as one of the top officials at the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention; and Albert “Kell” Kelly, a former head of a task force meant to revitalize the EPA’s toxic-cleanup program who once received a lifetime ban from the banking industry.

The 127-year-old environmental group has emerged as one of the Trump administration’s fiercest critics on environmental issues. During Pruitt’s time in office, the Sierra Club’s flurry of public-records requests uncovered a cozy relationship between Pruitt and business executives in industries the EPA regulates.

Previous emails the group obtained revealed that Pruitt used government resources to try to purchase a used mattress from Trump’s Washington hotel and to secure a Chick-fil-A franchise for his wife.

Those and other news stories about Pruitt’s ethical and managerial lapses led the White House to ask for Pruitt’s resignation in July.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth D. Laporte cited Pruitt’s departure — and Wheeler’s subsequent elevation to the top of the agency — as among the “persuasive reasons for the urgency” of the Sierra Club’s requests for documents pertaining to him.


— U.S. greenhouse gas emissions spiked in 2018:Greenhouse gas emissions in the United States jumped 3.4 percent last year, the latest in dire findings that come as scientists are warning the world to slash emissions in order to combat the impact of climate change.

It couldn’t happen at a worse time: The findings from independent economic research firm Rhodium Group mean there’s an even lower chance the nation can meet standards set by the 2015 Paris climate accord, The Post’s Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis report. “The findings also underscore how the world’s second-largest emitter, once a global leader in pushing for climate action, has all but abandoned efforts to mitigate the effects of a warming world,” Mooney and Dennis write.

Why it happened: “The sharp emissions rise was fueled primarily by a booming economy, researchers found. But the increase, which could prove to be the second-largest in the past 20 years, probably would not have been as stark without Trump administration rollbacks, said Trevor Houser, a partner at Rhodium.”

Women walk amid a heat wave in Tokyo on July 23, 2018. (Kyodo News via Getty Images)

—  Man it’s a hot one: Last year was the fourth-warmest year on record, according to the European Union-funded Copernicus Climate Service, Axios reports. The European agency found average global temperatures were up more than 0.4 degrees Celsius, or 0.72 degrees Fahrenheit, above the 1981-2010 average, making the last five years nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the preindustrial average.

What do U.S. scientists say: We don’t know yet because NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have not released their numbers yet during the partial government shutdown.

Debris washed into the Chesapeake Bay from record rainfall accumulates around a sailboat in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Brian Witte, File)

— Chesapeake Bay stumble: The Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued a D rating for the bay,  marking the first time in a decade that the health of the bay has diminished, The Post’s Rachel Chason reports. The foundation issues a report card every two years. The decrease partly a result of record area rainfall that led to increased pollution and low water clarity. “Simply put, the Bay suffered a massive assault in 2018,” the foundation’s president William Baker said in a Monday news conference. “The bay’s sustained improvement was reversed in 2018, exposing just how fragile recovery is.”


The Old Post Office Pavilion Clock Tower, which remains open during the partial government shutdown, is seen above the Trump International Hotel, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

— “At the very least, this smells funny”: Ethics watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed a FOIA request calling for an explanation for why the historic clock tower at the Trump International Hotel in Washington stayed open despite the government shutdown.

The tower is a National Park Service facility and was open on Friday, the Associated Press reports. “The Trump administration appears to have gone out of its way to keep the attraction in the federally owned building that houses the Trump hotel open and staffed with National Park Service rangers, even as other federal agencies shut all but the most essential services,” the AP reports.

CREW filed a request with the General Services Administration, which owns the Trump hotel, for additional information on the tower’s opening, how it’s being funded and whether there was any communication between the agency and the Trump Organization regarding the facility.

A bicyclist use the bicycle lane on 15th Street near the White House in Washington as snow begins to fall. (AP Photo/ Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

— How the shutdown may impact your weather forecast: While the National Weather Service is considered critical during the partial government shutdown, The Post’s Angela Fritz reports the shutdown impacts the service and its operations in major ways, with effects that could last beyond the shutdown itself. Forecasters and managers are working without pay, making a stressful job even more so. “Weather models are not being maintained, launched or improved. Emergency managers are not being trained,” Fritz writes. A new global forecast model set to launch in February will probably be delayed as a result, and the current system is running poorly without anyone on deck to fix it.

— NOAA nominee resigns from his company: Trump’s nominee to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stepped down from his post as the officer and director of AccuWeather, the company announced last week. Barry Lee Myers also sold all his interest in the company and its subunits. Myers, who has been waiting more than a year to be confirmed, will need to wait a little longer as Trump will need to renominate Myers after the Senate failed to confirm him before the end of the last Congress.

— Door revolves: Former House Science, Space and Technology Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) and former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) have new lobbying gigs at Washington lobbying firm Akin Gump, the firm announced Monday. Smith will join as a senior consultant while Ros-Lehtinen joins as a senior adviser.


Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy speaks at the 2018 Massachusetts Democratic Party Convention in Worcester, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

— High court rejects Exxon effort to block climate investigation: The Supreme Court on Monday declined to stop a Massachusetts investigation into ExxonMobil’s actions on climate change, clearing a path for the state’s attorney general to obtain internal records from the company. The high court declined to hear the oil giant’s appeal of a previous ruling that Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey had the authority to seek documents and statements to investigate whether Exxon misled investors and the public on climate change, Reuters reports.



  • The National Council for Science and the Environment’s 2019 annual conference continues.

Coming Up

  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds an event on “The Launch of the Stephenson Ocean Security Project” on Wednesday.
  • The USAID holds an event on “Emerging Markets for U.S. Smart Grid Suppliers and Investors in Africa, Asia and Latin America” on Wednesday.
  • The Environmental and Energy Study Institute holds an event on “Reframing Energy for the 21st Century” on Friday.


— “Let’s go, guys”: Hours before Gavin Newsom was sworn in as the new California governor, his predecessor Jerry Brown departed the governor’s office with some friends: