Disappearing ‘Climate,’ EPA FOIA Surge, Pipeline Docs Ruling and More

May 9, 2018


WatchDog: Disappearing ‘Climate,’ EPA FOIA Surge, Pipeline Docs Ruling and More

By Joseph A. Davis, WatchDog TipSheet Editor

1. Climate Change Cut from National Parks Reports
2. FOIA Lawsuits Burgeon Against Pruitt’s EPA in 2017
3. Judge Orders Release of Docs Behind Keystone XL Pipeline Decision
4. CREW Files FOIA Suit Over Pruitt ‘Recusal’ from Waters of US Rule


1. Climate Change Cut from National Parks Reports

National Park Service officials have deleted mention of manmade climate change from a still-awaited report on how sea level rise might affect coastal parks, as reported by Elizabeth Shogren for Reveal April 2.

Busts of the Wright Brothers at their North Carolina memorial site, which is among those most at risk from sea level rise, per an unreleased study that has reportedly had climate change references deleted. Photo: National Park Service

The edits happened despite Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s public claims that the agency doesn’t censor science.

The park service’s 87-page report, written by a scientist at the University of Colorado-Boulder, has not yet been published. It projects risks from flooding and rising seas at 118 units of the National Park System — such as the Jamestown settlement site, the Wright Brothers National Memorial and the National Mall.

As the report went through review and editing, National Park Service officials removed references to “anthropogenic” (or human-caused) climate change, leaving only references to changes in relative sea levels, reports Shogren, who obtained 18 successive versions of the report.

Zinke had told a Senate committee in March that the agency does not censor science. When House Democrats grilled him about the incident in April, Zinke told them that he had not yet seen (subscription required) the report. Congressional Democrats have called on Interior’s Inspector General to investigate.

The incident was not isolated. Zinke reportedly reprimanded one park superintendent in November 2017 for two Twitter posts about climate. And in December 2017, the watchdog group EDGI (Environmental Data and Governance Initiative) reported that climate change plans for 92 different National Park System sites had been taken down from the web. The NPS said it would reinstate them some day.

The cuts seem to demonstrate a pattern of science suppression not only at the Interior Department, but in the Trump administration generally. Monitoring by EDGI and other groups has shown steady disappearance of many climate-related pages from federal websites during the Trump administration.  

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been the most prominent example. Records obtained by the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group, show that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been personally involved in getting the climate pages removed.

Watchdogs have archived the “disappeared” climate materials (may require subscription), EDGI says in its 2018 annual report, while Congress and the news media (may require subscription) have also stood witness.

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2. FOIA Lawsuits Burgeon Against Pruitt’s EPA in 2017

If you want public records from the EPA, you may need to go to court, a recent analysis suggests.

Politico investigated lawsuits filed against the agency under the Freedom of Information Act since President Donald Trump took office — and found a big surge.

FOIA requesters filed some 55 lawsuits against EPA since Trump’s inauguration, 46 of those in 2017. It was the highest number since data collection began in 1992.

Politico reporter Emily Holden used data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Some of the lawsuits came from journalists requesting Administrator Pruitt’s schedules and travel records — information which fueled many stories raising questions about his meetings and expenses.

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3. Judge Orders Release of Docs Behind Keystone XL Pipeline Decision

A federal district judge in Montana ruled Feb. 21 that the Trump administration has to release documents supporting its decision to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, or else justify withholding them. The documents may bolster environmentalists’ main case against the pipeline approval, which could come up this month.


The documents may bolster

environmentalists’ main case

against the pipeline approval.


Environmental groups had sued for release of the documents after Trump ordered federal agencies to approve the pipeline back on Jan. 24, 2017. The primary agency involved, the State Department, had rejected the pipeline under former President Barack Obama. Environmentalists want the documents to see if the environmental reviews used by the Trump administration were out of date.

District Judge Brian Morris issued the order to either release the documents or declare them privileged, one by one, in a detailed list. The environmental groups involved include the Indigenous Environmental Network, the North Coast River Alliance and the Northern Plains Resource Council.

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4. CREW Files FOIA Suit Over Pruitt ‘Recusal’ from Waters of US Rule

A watchdog group has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the EPA’s refusal to disclose records about Administrator Pruitt’s “recusal” from revision of the so-called Waters of the United States, or WOTUS, rule, among other matters.

The nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, is seeking communications between Pruitt and EPA’s designated ethics officer related to his recusals. Even before his confirmation, on Jan. 3, 2017, Pruitt signed a letter to the EPA ethics officer describing the steps he would take to avoid conflict of interest.

It mattered because Pruitt as Oklahoma Attorney General had sued the Obama EPA over a number of regulations — including the WOTUS rule.

In the letter, Pruitt said he would recuse himself for a year from matters in which he had a financial interest, unless he received a waiver from the ethics office. That year has now expired.

CREW filed a FOIA request in March 2017 seeking all communications between Pruitt and the ethics officer. Having not gotten the records it wanted — particularly ethics advice given to Pruitt about recusals — CREW filed a complaint on May 1, 2018, seeking the records in federal court under FOIA against EPA.

While the ethics letter technically addresses matters in which Pruitt may have had a financial interest, CREW has raised the issue of conflict for cases in which he may defend EPA on matters he formerly sued EPA on.

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* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 19. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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