Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy dodged questions on Thursday about internal emails that appear to show top EPA officials using agency events to help environmentalist groups gather comments on agency rules.
Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) grilled McCarthy on the issue at a Thursday hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, reciting portions of a Wednesday Washington Free Beacon report on the emails.
One of those emails showed that deputy EPA administrator Bob Perciasepe held an event with two dozen environmentalist groups for the explicit purpose of helping them solicit comments supportive of stringent environmental regulations.
"Is it proper behavior for the EPA to go out with these groups for the sole purpose of recruiting additional comment signers to then go ahead and support your position?" Barrasso asked.
McCarthy declined to address the event specifically, saying she had not seen the email in question and was not aware of the Perciasepe event.
"I certainly don’t want to interpret what you just read, senator," McCarthy said. "I don’t know what the occasion was, I’m sorry."
She noted that the EPA holds events with all sorts of "stakeholders," including environmentalists and industry groups. However, Barrasso insisted the newly uncovered emails suggest more overt collaboration with the former.
"These emails that have been found seem to say your goal with meeting with these specific groups is ‘to recruit additional comment signers to generate support’ for positions that you're taking and the most liberal of all environmental activist groups, rather than just bringing in input," he said.
Other committee Republicans also pressed McCarthy on the emails.
"The evidence for collusion is mounting against EPA and their extreme environmental allies," said Sen. David Vitter (R., La.), the committee’s ranking Republican.
"For years now, they’ve adopted underhanded approaches to rewrite the regulatory climate," Vitter added, citing "sue and settle" practices that, some say, allow groups to effectively rewrite environmental regulations through the judicial process.
Vitter also criticized EPA officials’ use of personal email accounts to conduct official business. Emails released on Wednesday revealed that that practice was more widespread than the agency had admitted.
Former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson was criticized for using a personal email account under the pseudonym "Richard Windsor" to conduct official business. Critics said it was an attempt to shield some internal communications from FOIA requests.
McCarthy’s testimony came as top Senate Republicans readied a legislative push to stop EPA regulations on power plants that they say will effectively outlaw the construction of new coal-fired power plants.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who has introduced a resolution of disapproval that would block EPA regulations on power plant emissions, cited emails between top EPA officials and leading environmentalist groups as evidence of what he dubbed the agency’s anti-coal agenda.
The emails were obtained through a recent Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. They show extensive coordination between EPA and executives at environmentalist groups such as the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Natural Resource Defense Council.
"I wasn’t surprised by emails that recently came to light, emails that appear to show EPA colluding with extremist special interests in devising impossible-to-achieve regulations," McConnell said on the Senate floor on Thursday.
EPA critics have insisted that the carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology necessary to make coal plants economically viable under proposed emissions regulations is not yet ready for commercial use. McCarthy disagreed at Thursday’s hearing.
But other internal emails suggest that environmental activists with whom EPA officials have communicated behind the scenes don’t believe that that is the case.
"The emails even referred to previously shuttered power plants as ‘defeated,’ making the intent behind coal related actions abundantly clear," McConnell noted.
Other Republicans said the coordination itself betrayed a radical EPA position on coal and other issues.
"If it wasn't clear enough before that this administration has it out for domestic energy producers in Texas and the across the country, these emails make it crystal clear," said Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R., Texas) in a statement.