When Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt declared this week that tree burning was inherently a carbon-neutral way to produce electricity, it was a victory for some Oklahoma friends of Scott Pruitt.
An Oklahoma City-based lobbying firm that opened in 2017, the Coffee Group, was paid $100,000 over the past year by an alliance of forestry companies—including giants Weyerhaeuser and Sierra Pacific—that have been seeking federal recognition of biomass as renewable energy on par with solar or wind.
Glenn Coffee, who served in the Oklahoma Senate with Pruitt, and Crystal Coon, who was Pruitt's chief of staff while he was state attorney general, made the case before EPA for the forestry companies, according to lobbying disclosure reports.
There's no law against friends lobbying friends. And the Coffee Group's earnings were only a fraction of the $1.7 million spent over the past year by the National Alliance of Forest Owners on lobbyists to press its case with the Trump administration and Congress. But amid the morass of ethical questions swirling around Pruitt over his spending on travel and security, his handling of personnel matters and potential conflicts of interest, it is yet more evidence that industry influence-peddling is alive and well—and paying off—in an administration that promised to "drain the swamp."
For the Coffee Group's three members, who never had lobbied at the federal level before and who all have other jobs, lobbying the EPA on behalf of six different clients over the past year has brought in $480,000.
Coon, who did not record any lobbying activity in the first quarter of 2018, is also a consulting partner for an Edmond, Oklahoma-based public relations firm. Coffee, who has his own law firm, was still registered as a federal lobbyist in the disclosures filed last week, along with another Coffee Group member, Tyler Norvell, whose LinkedIn profile lists him as a consultant, a former Farm Bureau representative and executive director of the Oklahoma Youth Expo.
Neither the Coffee Group nor the National Alliance of Forest Owners responded to InsideClimate News' queries about the role of the firm's lobbying on the biomass issue. The EPA also did not respond to questions about its biomass decision or the importance of the Coffee Group in making the case for the change in policy.
Public interest advocates argue that the role Pruitt's former Oklahoma colleagues have been playing as lobbyists raises further questions about his decision-making, especially in light of his ethical missteps and the changes he is making in how the agency uses science in decision-making—questions that are sure to take center-stage Thursday on Capitol Hill. Pruitt faces two separate House panels in his first appearance before Congress since a spate of ethics investigations began.
The lobbying by Coffee "underscores the value that D.C. puts on influence," said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at the watchdog group, Public Citizen. "The reason that companies would hire these people is not necessarily they are the smartest, or the hardest working. It's that hiring them gives you access to powerful people. That is the Golden Rule in D.C.
"The way that Pruitt has been running EPA, doing away with scientific standards and career staff evaluations of decisions, policy seems to be based more on rhetoric and ideology," Slocum said. "And that just amplifies the ability of his network of friends who are registered lobbyists to successfully have their issues addressed."
Eric Schaeffer, a former director of the EPA's civil enforcement office and now executive director the Environmental Integrity Project, said Pruitt's pattern of decision-making has made clear that he is open to persuasion. "He meets with somebody, and there's a new rule on glider trucks," Schaeffer said. Pruitt's past relationship with the Oklahoma lobbyists raises questions on whether his decisions on their issues are another example of environmental policy-making based on access, he said.
"Getting to the bottom of what's motivating a particular decision can be murky," Schaeffer added.
Why Biomass Energy?
Pruitt's biomass announcement was an unusual foray into the issue of carbon neutrality for an administrator who has said he doubts carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to climate change and who has suggested global warming may help humans. And it set off multiple alarms among environmentalists and scientists who have been studying the complex impacts of using biomass to produce electricity.
Interest in biomass energy has mushroomed in the past decade, as the European Union sought to meet its ambitious renewable energy targets in part by turning to biomass—often by converting old coal plants to run on wood pellets.
Some U.S. states sought to do the same under the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan. And even with the Trump administration repealing and rewriting the Clean Power Plan, the forest products industry has sought to establish federal recognition that biomass is renewable energy. Advocacy groups like National Alliance of Forest Owners (NAFO) argue that mostly scrap wood is used for wood pellets and a policy favoring use of biomass for energy will encourage the replanting of trees.
But whole trees are sometimes converted into pellets. And because trees can be burned far faster than they grow, biomass burning can cause a net release of carbon to the atmosphere if forests are not harvested and re-grown sustainably.
A study led by MIT researchers published earlier this year concluded that displacing coal with wood for power generation can make climate change worse for many decades or more. Meanwhile, the American Lung Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other health groups have warned that burning biomass creates soot and smog-forming pollution that cause a "sweeping array of health harms," from asthma attacks to cancer to heart attacks, resulting in emergency room visits, hospitalizations and premature deaths. Renewable energy advocates argue that cheap biomass could halt the transition to cleaner solar and wind if all are put on an equal policy footing as carbon-neutral.
EPA's Science Advisory Board has spent years studying and debating the issue, concluding in 2012 that "it is not scientifically valid to assume that all biogenic feedstocks are carbon neutral." But the board found itself at an impasse by the end of the Obama administration on which feedstocks and practices were environmentally sustainable.
Pruitt sought to circumvent further research, writing in his new biomass policy memo on Monday that the advisory board process "has not to date resulted in a workable, applied approach."
Forestry Companies Want More Markets
"Today's announcement grants America's foresters much-needed certainty and clarity with respect to the carbon neutrality of forest biomass," Pruitt said. "Managed forests improve air and water quality, while creating valuable jobs and thousands of products that improve our daily lives. This is environmental stewardship in action."
At an event on Monday that was not announced to the press in advance, Pruitt planted a tree at an elementary school in Cochran, Georgia, with forest owners Earl and Wanda Barrs. "Our challenge is that there are not enough healthy markets for the wood we grow," Earl Barrs said.
In addition to family farmers, NAFO represents more than two dozen timber companies, including some of the biggest in the industry.
Pruitt's appointment calendar, which was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Environmental Integrity Project, showed that he was scheduled to meet with CEOs of the alliance member companies at EPA headquarters on April 5, 2017. NAFO's briefing book from its board of directors meeting last October said Pruitt had told them he was "committed to reinstating the carbon neutrality of biomass."
Other Coffee Clients Also Want EPA Changes
NAFO was not the only lobbying client of the Coffee Group to enjoy success in its dealings with EPA under Pruitt.
Tulsa-based convenience store chain QuikTrip, which paid $10,000 in lobbying fees to Coffee early last year, urged Pruitt not to change the so-called "point of obligation" in the nation's ethanol program, as many in the oil refining industry have sought.
QuikTrip is one of a number of retailers that sell credits in the Renewable Fuel Standard program; opponents argue they reap an unfair profit, while QuikTrip says it passes the savings along to consumers. In one of the most heavily lobbied issues the EPA faces, wrapped up in farm state politics, and pitting corn growers against the oil and food industries, it is impossible to know how important QuikTrip's arguments were in Pruitt's Nov. 22 decision to maintain the RFS point of obligation.
The Coffee Group's largest fees came from PDC Energy, a Colorado-based oil and gas company that faced an enforcement action by both federal and state officials for pollution from leaky storage tanks that officials said were contributing to smog in the Denver region. The original complaint said the company could be liable for fines of $100,000 a day, which would have added up to more than $54 million over the year and a half over which violations were detected. The case was settled last October for $2.5 million.
"We are pleased we reached agreement with state and federal regulators," PDC CEO Barton Brookman said in the company's quarterly conference call for investors in November, during which analysts congratulated the firm on the deal.
Schaeffer, who served as director of civil enforcement at EPA, said it is not unusual for fines to be negotiated down when a company agrees—as PDC Energy did in this case—to spend money to address the problem.
He said it underscores the importance of ethical requirements for federal officials that have to do with avoiding the appearance of impropriety. Although not illegal, he said, "It's a little weird to set up a firm to lobby someone who came from your network and that's exclusively what you do."