Weak Allegations Fill NYT’s Latest Ill-Founded Pruitt Expose

The New York Times is back with another attempted blockbuster on Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. In two previous posts, I explained all the errors and ill-founded conclusions in the Times’s previous exposes; per usual, there is much less than meets the eye with the latest.

Here’s how the article starts:

WASHINGTON — When career employees of the Environmental Protection Agency are summoned to a meeting with the agency’s administrator, Scott Pruitt, at agency headquarters, they no longer can count on easy access to the floor where his office is, according to interviews with employees of the federal agency.

Doors to the floor are now frequently locked, and employees have to have an escort to gain entrance.

Some employees say they are also told to leave behind their cellphones when they meet with Mr. Pruitt, and are sometimes told not to take notes.

Mr. Pruitt, according to the employees, who requested anonymity out of fear of losing their jobs, often makes important phone calls from other offices rather than use the phone in his office, and he is accompanied, even at E.P.A. headquarters, by armed guards, the first head of the agency to ever request round-the-clock security.

Furtive phone calls! … Locked doors! … No notes allowed! … That is some seriously ominous color. But there’s a big problem. “None of this is true; It’s all rumors,” according to EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman. So the New York Times’s reporting is based on anonymous hearsay that is contradicted on the record by the principals involved. In my eyes, this means that reporters Coral Davenport & Eric Lipton have (again) brewed a weak tea for readers.

With that journalistic context in mind, consider the substance of all the other allegations in the article.

Weak Tea Allegation #1: “[Pruit] has terminated a decades-long practice of publicly posting his appointments calendar and that of all the top agency aides.”

I’d prefer if Pruitt made all of this information available, but Watergate this is not.

Weak Tea Allegation #2: “[Pruitt] has evaded oversight questions from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, according to the Democratic senators who posed the questions.”

EPA spokeswoman Bowman said that EPA has responded to 13 of 24 oversight requests. She did not say whether the agency would respond to the other 11, or why they would or wouldn’t do so. Of course, this is unsatisfactory. Alas, it’s also par for the course: Obama’s EPA point blank lied to Congress, in addition to stonewalling information requests. In fact, this is an issue that has burned me for some time: members of Congress giving priority to party fealty over institutional pride. That is, when Democrats are in charge of the executive and legislative branches, members of Congress don’t care about satisfying information requests from Republicans; and vice-versa for the GOP when the shoe is on the other foot. A commendable exception is Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who long has pressed for the executive branch to honor oversight requests, regardless of which party is in charge. For the purposes of this post, the important point is that selective responses are the norm (alas), which is an important detail omitted by the reporters.

Weak Tea Allegation #3: His aides recently asked career employees to make major changes in a rule regulating water quality in the United States—without any records of the changes they were being ordered to make.

If this is true, then of course I oppose such efforts at secrecy. Just as I opposed them when Obama’s “climate czar” Carol Browner barred note-taking and mandated secrecy in federal-led negotiations among automakers, state officials, and environmentalists that led to the EPA expanding its authority to include the regulation of fuel efficiency. Again, what we have here (if the underlying allegation is true, which the EPA disputes) is a practice that is unfortunately common.

Weak Tea Allegation #4: “And the E.P.A. under Mr. Pruitt has moved to curb certain public information, shutting down data collection of emissions from oil and gas companies…”

It is absurd and ignorant to somehow link the “shutting down data collection of emissions from oil and gas companies” to “curbing public information.” The act in question pertains to an “Information Collection Request” for oil and gas companies to report how much methane leaks from their existing operations. Such an “ICR” is a precursor to regulation. It is a regulatory act, one that takes a lot of money and time to comply with. The Obama administration, late in its second term, issued this ICR to commence a process that would culminate with the promulgation of “existing performance standards” for methane from oil and gas operations. It would’ve have been a huge regulation, and its entire purpose was climate change mitigation. At the time it issued the ICR, the Obama administration had assumed that a Clinton administration would have carried on with the effort, but then the election was won by the guy who railed against Obama’s climate policies and who called global warming a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese. In accordance with this electoral mandate, Pruitt halted the ICR, and thereby halted a major climate regulation of the sort that the electorate had repudiated by electing Trump, despite Obama’s 2nd term warnings that global warming is the most pressing threat facing mankind. Long story short: this has nothing to do with “curbing public information,” as the Times reporters would have readers believe.

Weak Tea Allegation #5: Pruitt “[took] down more than 1,900 agency webpages on topics like climate change, according to a tally by the Environmental Defense Fund, which did a Freedom of Information request on these terminated pages.”

See the above answer. In addition, if I had my druthers, EPA wouldn’t waste any time or money on educational webpages. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for posting all information relevant to regulations, and I’d prefer if the agency posted or even filmed its deliberative processes. But I don’t care about the agency’s climate page. It’s a waste, in my opinion, especially in light of the fact that the agency has wholesale failed to meet its date-certain nondiscretionary duties.

Weak Tea Allegation #6: “Mr. Pruitt’s efforts to undo a major water protection rule are one example of his moves to quickly and stealthily dismantle regulations.

The rule, known as Waters of the United States, and enacted by the Obama administration, was designed to take existing federal protections on large water bodies such as the Chesapeake Bay and Mississippi River and expand them to include the wetlands and small tributaries that flow into those larger waters.

It was fiercely opposed by farmers, rural landowners and real estate developers.

The original estimate concluded that the water protections would indeed come at an economic cost to those groups — between $236 million and $465 million annually.

But it also concluded, in an 87-page analysis, that the economic benefits of preventing water pollution would be greater: between $555 million and $572 million.

E.P.A. employees say that in mid-June, as Mr. Pruitt prepared a proposal to reverse the rule, they were told by his deputies to produce a new analysis of the rule — one that stripped away the half-billion-dollar economic benefits associated with protecting wetlands.

“On June 13, my economists were verbally told to produce a new study that changed the wetlands benefit,” said Elizabeth Southerland, who retired last month from a 30-year career at the E.P.A., most recently as a senior official in the agency’s water office.

“On June 16, they did what they were told,” Ms. Southerland said. “They produced a new cost-benefit analysis that showed no quantifiable benefit to preserving wetlands.”

Ms. Southerland and other experts in federal rule-making said such a sudden shift was highly unusual — particularly since studies that estimate the economic impact of regulations can take months or even years to produce, and are often accompanied by reams of paperwork documenting the process.”

I’m familiar with the “87-page analysis” and the Pruitt EPA’s use of the analysis. I have my own problems with why and how the current EPA performed its economic analysis, but allow me to explain how the Obama EPA engineered “$555 million to $572 million” in benefits attendant to the Waters of the U.S. Rule. Eighty-seven percent of these putative “benefits” result from the quantified value of restoration efforts required by “dredge and fill” Clean Water Act permits. Think: the “benefit” of a company planting trees you will never get within a 100 miles of. These ultra-tenuous estimates are based on “willingness to pay” surveys that ask people how much hypothetical money they would pay to know that trees have been planted that they’ll never see. The upshot is that these benefits are total horse manure. They are an archetype of that apocryphal phrase, “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” To make matters worse, the agency calibrated their 2015 WOTUS cost/benefits analysis such that the supposed “benefit” of each permit outweighed its “cost.” That is, there was no circumstance under which “costs” could outweigh the imaginary “benefits.” This ratio is baked into the analysis. Lest you think this is anomalous, consider how the EPA conducts its jobs analysis for major air quality rules. As was noted by then-CEI (and current Cato) analyst David Bier, the agency relies on an economic model that assumes every million dollars spent on regulation results in a net-benefit job creation. So the more you regulate, the more jobs are predicted. It’s ludicrous. So I’ve no problem with the Pruitt EPA stripping these benefits from consideration. All that being said, I think the current EPA erred with its own analysis, for reasons I’ll articulate in a forthcoming piece for Bloomberg Insight.

Weak Tea Allegation #7: Mr. Pruitt had a reputation for being secretive before he ever came to the E.P.A.

While serving as Oklahoma’s attorney general, he came under criticism for maintaining at least three separate email accounts, including one private account that he at times used for state government business.

During his Senate confirmation, he was asked about these multiple accounts, providing what some senators considered a misleading answer.

A subsequent lawsuit resulted in the release of some of these other emails, which Mr. Pruitt had asserted did not exist.

Good Lord! Here the reporters’ sin is one of conspicuous omission. Lisa Jackson had an alias. Gina McCarthy conducted business by text. Perspective, please.