Internal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emails show extensive collaboration between top agency officials and leading environmentalist groups, including overt efforts to coordinate messaging and pressure the fossil fuel industry.
The emails, obtained by the Energy and Environment Legal Institute (EELI) through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, could fuel an ongoing controversy over EPA policies that critics say are biased against traditional sources of energy.
Emails show EPA used official events to help environmentalist groups gather signatures for petitions on agency rulemaking, incorporated advance copies of letters drafted by those groups into official statements, and worked with environmentalists to publicly pressure executives of at least one energy company.
Nancy Grantham, director of public affairs for EPA Region 1, which covers New England, asked an organizer for the Sierra Club’s New Hampshire chapter to share the group’s agenda so EPA could adjust its messaging accordingly in an email dated March 12, 2012.
"If you could, it would great [sic] if you can send me an email describing what you would like to do in early April in NH–that way I can coordinate messaging with our air offices here and at HQ," Grantham wrote.
Critics of the agency and its nonprofit allies were surprised by the cooperation.
"The level of coordination in these documents is shocking," EELI said in a statement.
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R., Kan.), a member of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power, said the emails suggest that the EPA is straying from its mission by working hand-in-hand with hardline green groups.
"It’s unfortunate that EPA has spent more of its resources promoting and coordinating a political agenda with environmentalists instead of doing its job," Pompeo said in an emailed statement.
"In Kansas, we expect public officials to serve the public interest, not the interests of radical environmentalist groups."
The documents also reveal some of the internal deliberations behind recent controversial EPA decisions, such as the locations of public hearings on an agency rule imposing stringent emissions limits for power plants.
The agency came under fire from legislators representing coal-producing states for holding those hearings far from regions where most of the nation’s coal is produced.
"Instead of the EPA holding a coal hearing in the heart of Coal Country, Kentucky, he has chosen locations such as San Francisco and Washington, D.C.," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said at the time.
McConnell accused EPA of "once again showing its contempt for Kentucky’s coal miners and their families."
Emails released by EELI show that EPA decided on the locations for those hearings after consulting with leading environmentalist groups that advocate the complete phase-out of coal power.
"San Fran and Seattle would be friendlier forums but CA has no coal plants and WA is phasing out its one plant," noted EPA region 8 administrator James Martin in an email to Vicki Patton, general counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
"Choosing either may create opportunities for the industry to claim EPA is tilting the playing field," Martin told Patton. "Denver would not have that problem."
The EPA would later deny that Martin used a personal email for EPA business. The FOIAed messages reveal that that was not the case. His email to Patton was sent from a ".me" address.
Martin also advised Patton that hearings in Denver could be used to pressure the natural gas industry. "The gas industry has way more presence here, too. One last point in its favor–it will make Roy Palmer nervous!" he wrote.
Palmer is an executive at Xcel Energy, a leading natural gas utility in Colorado.
Amy Oliver Cooke, the executive director of the Independence Institute, a Denver-based free market think tank, said she was surprised at the hostility towards Palmer and Xcel, given their past cooperation on legislation imposing renewable energy quotas in the state.
"It shows that Xcel and natural gas aren't welcome at the eco-left's cool kids table anymore," Cooke said.
"It's really no surprise," she added. "We warned them they would be next. When you sleep with rattlesnakes eventually they will bite you. With friends like Patton and Martin, Xcel and natural gas don't need any more enemies. "
A Sierra Club employee also sent a list of their preferred locations for public hearings. The list was forwarded to EPA staff.
The emissions rule on which EPA held those hearings—one of which ended up taking place in Denver—is expected to effectively block the construction of new coal-fired power plants.
The EPA has denied that that was the purpose of the rule, or that it will have that effect. However, other emails obtained by EELI show that top EPA officials were aware that it would devastate the industry.
These newly released emails show that officials also used events surrounding the rule to help environmentalist groups gather public comments on the rulemaking process that supported the EPA’s position.
Deputy EPA administrator Bob Perciasepe attended an April 24, 2012, meeting with 24 leading environmentalist groups, including EDF, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resource Defense Council, according to a notice of the meeting sent by Teri Porterfield, Perciasepe’s assistant.
"The purpose is to create a photo-op and narrative beat for the comment-gathering efforts on the issue," Porterfield wrote.
"Groups will use materials from the event to communicate with supporters and recruit additional comment-signers via newsletters, emails, and social media," she added.
The EPA also incorporated environmentalist groups’ messaging into then-administrator Lisa Jackson’s communications with members of Congress, the emails reveal.
On November 30, 2011, John Coequyt, who headed the Sierra Club’s "beyond coal" campaign, sent an advance copy of a letter publicly released the following day to a number of EPA officials, including "Richard Windsor," the pseudonym Jackson used for her personal email address.
The letter addressed a pending EPA rule on emissions from industrial boilers.
"Administrator, I’ll summarize all this in your briefing document for the Hill meetings regarding Boiler MACT," Arvin Ganesan, a top official in EPA’s congressional relations office, wrote in a follow-up. The following paragraphs of Ganesan’s email were redacted by EPA’s FOIA office.
These emails were released weeks after EPA’s inspector general released a report examining apparent coordination between the agency and environmentalist groups prior to EPA issuing an endangerment order against Texas natural gas company Range Resources.
The IG found that EPA’s actions "conformed to agency guidelines, regulations and policy," but observers say it either failed to take into account significant pieces of evidence or deliberately ignored that evidence.
Internal EPA regulations prohibit officials from leaking information about administrative orders prior to their public release. However, the IG said that the EPA had done no such thing with respect to the Range order.
"A review of the evidence showed that this communication occurred after the region issued its press release and that it is not out of the ordinary for the EPA to inform interested parties of press releases after they are released," the report stated.
That statement seems to contradict evidence showing that Al Armendariz, a former EPA region 6 administrator infamous for comparing his enforcement philosophy to Roman crucifixions, gave environmentalist groups the heads up before EPA put out its press release.
"We’re about to make a lot of news," Armendariz wrote to a handful of Texas environmental activists prior to that release. "There’ll be an official press release in a few minutes. Also, time to Tivo channel 8."