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'There's Nothing They Won't Do for the Industry': A Climate Expert Argues That EPA Bias Let Illegal Emissions Go Unpunished

An Environmental Protection Agency watchdog calls out Scott Pruitt's failure to penalize three Oklahoma-based oil and gas companies for polluting.
A pump jack sits on the outskirts of town in the Permian Basin oil field on January 21st, 2016 in the oil town of Midland, Texas.

Environmental groups are calling out the leadership of the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to enforce penalties against three oil and gas companies responsible for toxic emissions—all three based in ousted EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's home state of Oklahoma.

Normally, companies that violate environmental standards under the Clean Air Act are investigated and issued penalties under EPA administrative orders, or brought to court. Either way, they're made to pay out millions to clean up leaks.

A report released Tuesday by the Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club, and Environment Texas found that, while the EPA required three such companies to pay $8.55 million and invest nearly $100 million more in leak prevention and mitigation, another trio of industry groups—the Devon, Chesapeake, and Gulport Energy Corporations—got off without any penalties or payments, although their levels of pollution are likely just as significant, according to the EIP.

One key difference is a possible connection to Pruitt, who had a close relationship with fossil fuel companies during his tenure as Oklahoma's attorney general—so close that one of the companies implicated here, Devon, played a "major role" in drafting the attorney general's correspondence, the New York Times reported in 2014.

Whether or not these cases can be tied to Pruitt directly, the lack of enforcement does not bode well for regulation, or for public health. The companies' negligence ranges from leaking oil tanks to faulty flares, which EIP Executive Director Eric Schaeffer describes as a pilot light on a stove, left on without a flame. "When you rush gas to the flare, it's not getting burned up, it's all exhausting out into the atmosphere," he says. "That's a lot of pollution and it adds up really quickly."

For example, the three companies that have been penalized (Noble, PDC, and Slawson), will be forced to eliminate a combined 20,025 tons of harmful gases per year.

Pacific Standard spoke to Schaeffer, former director of the EPA's Office of Civil Enforcement, about the report's significance and the agency's next steps. As of Tuesday, the only response the EIP had received from the EPA was a critique of the report's accuracy, which is based entirely off public records.


Could you explain why how this report came about and why it's important?

We want to see what the rule of law means when it's applied to oil and gas companies and whether they're getting softer treatment [under this administration]. Enforcement can take a while; it's possible [the EPA is] still working on these [three Oklahoma-based] cases and they'll take some enforcement action at some point. If they manage to catch up on these companies and force them to do what their competitors have done and pay penalties, then great, we'll be the first to say "hooray." But enough time had passed that we thought it was worth flagging this.

The connection with Oklahoma being Scott Pruitt's home state—does that seem significant here?

It definitely raises questions. At the same time, this is an administration that is very oil- and gas-friendly. It's possible that the next case that doesn't involve a company from Oklahoma will get the "peace-love" treatment also. There's nothing they won't do for that industry.

What does this lack of enforcement signal for the future of oil and gas regulation?

It just means we breathe more illegal pollution. The truth is that if you don't stay on top of it and if you don't use up-to-date equipment or monitor frequently enough, you're going to have leaks, and that's what EPA was finding.

[From the first three cases,] the pollution that got reduced is in the thousands of tons. Those are smog-forming pollutants; they include some toxins and also nitrogen-oxide reductions. When you see thousands of tons of smog-forming pollutants, that's really significant. That's what they got when they did take action, so what are they letting go by not taking action?

With Pruitt out, how optimistic are you that these changes will be made and we will see actual enforcement?

I'm not very optimistic overall. There are good people in the EPA working to do enforcement, but the administration isn't putting a lot of its own political energy into enforcement. Enforcement should be non-political. It shouldn't matter whether you're Republican or Democrat. What the program needs is a steady hand and the sense that the political management of EPA has their back, and that there isn't a side door that companies can go through to complain or get a better deal—or that they're warned off enforcing inside certain zones, where the administration doesn't like the law. The program is feeling that pressure, and I don't think we're going to see much enforcement under the Trump administration.

What are the next steps for the organizations that are calling attention to this?

[The EIP doesn't] have the resources to bring citizen suits. The public interest community does have the authority to bring suits on behalf of communities to enforce legal requirements. I hope to see more. You could see a state like Colorado actually pursuing enforcement against gas companies in that state, and to have states step up is a good thing. That can actually help to offset when the federal government steps back. That's not going to happen in industry-friendly states like Texas.

It's pretty much up to citizens. I'm hoping over time, bluntly speaking, that the politics shift and we get an administration and a Congress that's more supportive of enforcement than this one is.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.