The Energy 202: Trump’s environmental team scrutinized for tighter control of public records

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, July 29, 2019

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and President Trump at a White House event. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/REX)

Government watchdogs, environmental groups and even some top Republicans in Congress are starting to more closely examine the ways in which President Trump’s environmental deputies have attempted to control the release of public records.

The recent scrutiny is focused on how two major environmental departments, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior, decided to follow the Freedom of Information Act, which grants members of the public the right to access records from any federal agency.

Environmental regulators have seen a surge in requests for the release of government documents since Trump took office and the administration started rolling back regulations. Yet both agencies have tried putting in place new rules giving officials and political appointees greater discretion over whether and how quickly emails, memos and other documents should be made public.

On Tuesday, Interior’s internal watchdog said it is examining the department’s practice of withholding documents requested under FOIA.

News of the probe, which is not yet a formal investigation, came as four senators urged EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to reconsider a similar regulation coming into effect Friday. They introduced a new bill that undo some of the changes the EPA is seeking.

“[T]he rule purports to make numerous changes to the EPA’s FOIA process that appear to run contrary to the letter and spirit of FOIA, thus undermining the American people’s right to access information from the EPA,” Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), John Cornyn (R-Tex.), Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wrote in a joint letter sent Tuesday to Wheeler.

And on Wednesday, environmental groups filed two lawsuits against the EPA, casting its forthcoming rule as an effort to hide the administration’s actions after former EPA chief Scott Pruitt was forced out amid ethics scandals.

“What’s going on is that the EPA and Interior are just trying to withhold more information from the public,” said Lisa Rosenberg, executive director of the transparency advocate Open the Government, which is not involved in the litigation. “But the way they’re going about it, I would argue, is unlawful.”

The EPA said its new FOIA regulation better conforms to the law as it is written, after the Barack Obama administration failed to update the regulations after new versions of the public-records law passed Congress. And the agency has argued it will respond to requests more efficiently by centralizing the work in a national office.

“As we have said, this rule will enhance transparency and efficiency of responses to FOIA requests,” said agency spokesman Michael Abboud. “Allegations made that the rule is changing the political appointees role in FOIA are false.”

But Meg Townsend, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of four environmental groups behind the lawsuits against the EPA, suggested the new regulation “will only invite potenitlaly more litigation and create more work for EPA staff.”

Meanwhile, the Interior Department has cited exponential “increases in requests and litigation” since Trump took office as a reason it needs new rules to manage the flow of FOIA requests. The Interior secretary’s office, for example, saw requests jump 210 percent between fiscal years 2016 and 2018. The EPA administrator’s office saw a similar increase, from 203 up to 937 requests during that same period.

For months, nonprofit organizations focused on good governance and environmental issues have lamented how difficult it has become to extract information from both departments. The Western Values Project, for example — one several advocacy groups whose complaints spurred the Interior probe — says a request for communication between department and the office of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) have been held up because of a review by political appointees.

“Trump’s operatives at Interior are using their political power to withhold information from the public about decisions that impact America’s outdoor heritage,” said Chris Saeger, the group’s executive director. “The newly confirmed inspector general has an invaluable role to play, holding the Interior department accountable.”

Interior spokeswoman Molly Block said the department does not comment on ongoing inspector general work. EPA spokesman Abboud said the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation.