Scott Pruitt Closely Monitored Scrubbing of EPA Climate Websites, Emails Show

Documents show Pruitt targeted information about the Clean Power Plan while preparing to rescind it. Environment groups are now calling for him to recuse himself.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has long opposed the Clean Power Plan and other environmental regulations his agency is responsible for overseeing. Credit: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

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Shortly after arriving at the Environmental Protection Agency, Administrator Scott Pruitt took a personal interest in and closely monitored the removal of extensive information from his agency's website that explained to the public the federal effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Power Plan, according to newly released EPA documents.

The scrubbing of the information from EPA's website on April 28, 2017, preceded by six months Pruitt's formal proposal to rescind the rule, which had been issued by the Obama administration. The Clean Power Plan (CPP) information from the previous administration is in an archived EPA website.

Pruitt was an ardent opponent of the CPP, which aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, and the newly released memos reflect his enthusiasm for steps that would thwart it.

Environmental advocates say the decision to strip CPP information from the website reduced transparency as the agency, the courts, the public and warring state, industry and advocacy groups argue over the next steps.

On Monday, the Environmental Defense Fund and 11 other environmental and legal groups called for Pruitt to recuse himself from the final decision on the CPP on the grounds that his comments and actions in office indicated that he had already decided to scrap the rule, regardless of what the public would say.

The EPA is currently collecting public comment until April 26 about the repeal of CPP, which is effectively in limbo. The removal of the data and research that underpin the rule from the current EPA website makes it more difficult for people to get the information they need to weigh in on the repeal, said Ben Levitan, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, which got the documents describing Pruitt's involvement as part of a Freedom of Information Act request it filed last year.

"People should be able to go to the EPA website and look for the Clean Power Plan and for EPA's own information about it, and most people wouldn't realize the extent of what has been removed," Levitan said. "This regulation is still on the books, and the agency is simultaneously soliciting public comment on its repeal and obscuring the information people would need to make informed comments."

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox did not comment specifically on Pruitt's involvement in the removal of information but said, "we are constantly updating our website to reflect new initiatives and projects of the Agency. Of course the site will be reflective of the current administration's priorities—with that said, all the content from the previous administration is still easily accessible and publicly available—through the banner across the top of our website: www.epa.gov." 

The banner tells people that if they cannot find the information they need at the regular website, they can go to an archive or a "snapshot."

Pruitt Wanted Changes 'ASAP'

The deletion of the Clean Power Plan information is part of widespread effort within the Trump administration to ignore or erase discussions of climate change and its effects. On the EPA.gov home page, for instance, the dropdown menu under "Environmental Topics" no longer includes climate change. The EPA has also removed more than 200 climate webpages that would help state, local and tribal communities mitigate or adapt to climate change, according to the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, a watchdog group.

The newly released internal documents consist of emails among EPA's communications team, including staff and contractors responsible for the website.

On April 5, 2017, Lincoln Ferguson, Pruitt's senior advisor for public affairs, wrote to staff at the public affairs office asking when the Clean Power Plan changes to the website would go live.

At 12:15 p.m. on April 5, Ferguson wrote, "The Administrator would like it to go up ASAP. He has made several other changes that need to take place."

Four hours later, Ferguson again wrote, "Just asking because he is asking ..."

An 'Unalterably Closed Mind'?

The emails also reveal how EPA worked to make sure that any searches for the Clean Power Plan at EPA.gov took people to a Trump executive order calling for its repeal.

The emails also show that the EPA also removed all information in Spanish about climate change and its Student Guide to Global Climate Change and other material for children. It's unclear how many people used the Spanish-language resources, but the emails show that resources for young people got about one million page views a month in early 2017.

In the comments filed Monday regarding the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the Environmental Defense Fund and 11 other groups called for Pruitt to recuse himself from the CPP decision. They wrote that Pruitt had shown he "has a fixed position on the repeal of the rule, making his participation inconsistent with the Due Process Clause, which protects the public from rulemakings that are empty formalities because they are presided over by officials with an 'unalterably closed mind'."

Pruitt is scheduled to testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee at 10 a.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, Jan. 30, his first appearance before the committee since his confirmation in 2017. He testified before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee in December and was pressed about the growing influence within the EPA of the industries the agency is tasked with regulating.

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