New Openness at EPA but Same Policies: New Obstacles at Interior
July 26, 2018
The Society of Environmental Journalists
Now that Andrew Wheeler has started settling into office at the EPA, many are asking what his new regime means. On the one hand, he may be easier on journalists than departed head Scott Pruitt, whose tenure was marked by exclusion and secrecy. On the other hand, he is expected to continue Trump's anti-environmental agenda. Meanwhile, journalists have written Interior Secretary Zinke urging him to drop plans to interpose political appointees between reporters and the scientists they need to interview.
Taking Office as EPA Acting Administrator,
Wheeler Gets Realer
TipSheet / Society of Environmental Journalists
WASHINGTON (July 25, 2018) -- Now that Andrew Wheeler has started settling into office at the US Environmental Protection Agency, many are asking what his new regime means for EPA's future.
On the one hand, he may be easier on journalists than departed Administrator Scott Pruitt, whose tenure was marked by exclusion and secrecy. On the other hand, he is expected to continue to drive the Trump agenda that many view as bad news for health and environment.
Reporting on Wheeler had already started months ago, while he was being considered for confirmation by the Senate as EPA's deputy administrator -- Pruitt's second in command. After Pruitt's resignation earlier in July, Wheeler was appointed acting administrator, a position he could serve in almost indefinitely without another Senate confirmation. GOP senators say they are comfortable with that.
Now the reporting since Wheeler took over has changed tone -- and some of it is favorable.
Lobbying Was No Obstacle to Confirmation
Prior to Wheeler's confirmation by the Senate as deputy on April 12, 2018, much of the coverage focused on his career as a coal lobbyist. You might think this would have hurt his chances (may require subscription), but you'd be wrong.
Wheeler's approval in the Senate Environment Committee went by a straight party-line 11-10 vote. He was well-known to the committee, having worked there as a senior Senate staffer from 1995 to 2009, most of it for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). His 53-45 confirmation from the Senate as a whole included approval from three red-state Democrats, one being Joe Manchin from coal-centric West Virginia.
After he left the Senate Environment Committee in 2009, Wheeler worked as a lobbyist. And at the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels, he represented Murray Energy, a coal company owned by Trump supporter Robert E. Murray.
Murray was a vocal opponent of former President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan and a major contributor to Trump. Murray gave the Trump administration an "action plan" which has served partially as a to-do list for the Trump EPA and energy agencies.
Wheeler was still representing Murray during the early months of the Trump administration. During that time, but before he was nominated, he even hosted fundraisers for GOP members of the Senate Environment Committee.
Rebranding at EPA Doesn't Mean New Policy
Scandals surrounding Pruitt were multiplying by the time of Wheeler's confirmation in April, so when Pruitt finally resigned July 5, Wheeler's appointment as acting administrator was a mere formality.
Now, the new chief has definitely sought to rebrand the administrator's office.
On July 11, for instance, Wheeler held a televised "town meeting" in which he presented himself to EPA employees … and the world. He reached out to employees, saying he was ready to listen (may require subscription) to them, not something Pruitt appears to have done much of. (Although Rebecca Leber, writing for Mother Jones, noted that Pruitt had used the same line about "listening" in his own inaugural address).
One thing that was certainly different about Wheeler's "town hall" was the presence of journalist Eric Lipton (may require subscription) (along with droves of other reporters). The New York Times investigative ace had uncovered many EPA scandals during the Pruitt era, and was one of the many reporters who had been selectively excluded and personally attacked by previous EPA press honchos.
Lipton acknowledged, in his subsequent article, that Wheeler had made changes in press operations -- ending the selective exclusion and updating his calendars promptly. And for many other media -- such as the AP's Ellen Knickmeyer, whom guards had weeks before physically shoved out of the EPA building -- the headline was a new tone and style (may require subscription) of openness. The apparent shift has also been noted in articles by Bloomberg and Greenwire.
That story has held up in subsequent weeks. Pruitt had devolved into giving interviews largely to Fox and Breitbart in his last months. But Wheeler gave major interviews to serious mainstream media in his first days: Washington Post(may require subscription), Greenwire, Wall Street Journal (subscription required) and Bloomberg.
So changes in EPA press office behavior seem to be one real change under Wheeler. While the vacancies left by departing Pruitt spokespersons have yet to be officially filled, John Konkus seems to have emerged for now as the de facto top spokesman under Wheeler.
But while tone has seemingly changed at EPA, what appears unchanged is policy. At his town meeting, for instance, Wheeler made clear that he would pursue the same policy priorities that Pruitt had. Case in point: He did not mention climate at all.
Wheeler has remained unapologetic about his coal lobbying. So perhaps it was no surprise that one of his first major moves as acting administrator was to finalize a rule easing EPA restrictions on the disposal of toxic coal ash -- a change that had been in the pipeline under Pruitt.
Another example is Wheeler's reported intention to go ahead with loosening Obama-era auto emissions standards.
But one item to watch: While Wheeler's advent has to some extent reset the counter on EPA scandals (some Pruitt scandals persist), we may yet see new scandals emerge under Wheeler. Wheeler has promised to recuse himself from decisions affecting his old lobbying clients -- but doing that may be problematic (may require subscription). And some of the scandals may span the change in administrators, such as EPA's apparent policy of slowing down responses to Freedom of Information Act requests.
SEJ, Other Groups, Object to
US Geological Survey Interview Curbs
TipSheet / Society of Environmental Journalists
WASHINGTON (July 18, 2018) -- The Society of Environmental Journalists and 10 other journalism groups have written Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke urging him not to interpose political appointees between reporters and the scientists they need to interview. [You can read the text of the letter below -- EAW]
For decades, the US Geological Survey, home to some of the nation's best Earth scientists, has helped journalists help the public understand difficult but important science. The agency's transparency not only improved people's lives, but also actually saved lives.
Not anymore. Under the Trump administration, it appears that USGS scientists must get approval from politically appointed public affairs officers at the main Interior press shop before they can do an interview.
"This is deeply troubling," the J-groups' letter of July 16, 2018 said, "as it would amount to a significant change in longstanding practice at USGS, an agency dedicated to scientific inquiry. It's in the public interest for us to be able to interview USGS scientists and other officials without political interference."
Interior's exact policy is not crystal clear. The Los Angeles Times broke the story of the policy change June 21, based on agency sources and emails. But an Interior spokesperson, without denying that scientists needed permission to do interviews, disputed that policy had changed and claimed it had been set during the Obama administration.
The SEJ letter to Zinke said: "SEJ urges you to make clear in a public statement that scientists are free to talk to reporters about their work, and to share it freely with their scientific colleagues and the public."
Other journalism groups co-signing the letter included the American Society of News Editors, Associated Press Media Editors, Association of Alternative Newsmedia, National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Science Writers, National Press Photographers Association, Online News Association, Radio Television Digital News Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists.
The groups' letter also expressed concern that USGS scientists are now required to get permission from political appointees to attend scientific meetings. That story was reported by the Washington Post June 14, 2018, and December 22, 2017.
The Text of the SEJ Letter
Dear Secretary Zinke:
On behalf of our members and the undersigned organizations, the Society of Environmental Journalists urges you to maintain the decades-old policy of transparency between US Geological Survey scientists and the journalists who depend upon them as critical, and official, sources of information.
We were concerned to read in the June 21 Los Angeles Times of the apparent imposition of a new requirement that scientists with the US Geological Survey get the approval of politically-appointed public affairs officials at the Department of the Interior before granting interviews to reporters.
Citing documents it reviewed, the Times reported that DOI press secretary Heather Swift sent an email on April 25 requiring her prior approval for all interviews with national news outlets, and even for interviews with regional news outlets on "topics that are either very controversial or that are likely to become a national story."
This is deeply troubling, as it would amount to a significant change in longstanding practice at USGS, an agency dedicated to scientific inquiry. It's in the public interest for us to be able to interview USGS scientists and other officials without political interference.
The Times story quotes Faith Vander Voort, DOI deputy press secretary, saying that the department's communications office "simply asked" the USGS to follow departmental public communications guidelines adopted in 2012.
As the Times reported: "The 10-page media manual says that the Department of the Interior's communications office 'must be notified' ahead of media interviews that 'may generate significant news coverage, public interest or inquiry.'" The manual, however, does not say that agency employees must get clearance or approval before responding to a reporter.
And as the Times reported, the manual also says that DOI "supports a culture of openness with the news media and the public that values the free exchange of ideas, data and information."
That is particularly important in regard to USGS. As its website notes, it is the nation's leading federal agency providing science "about the natural hazards that threaten lives and livelihoods." It also does critical research on water, energy, minerals and other natural resources; on the health of ecosystems and the environment, and on the impacts of climate and land-use change.
Journalists frequently need to speak with USGS scientists on matters relating to their fields of expertise. Many of us work on tight, if not daily, deadlines, and adding another layer of approval prevents us from doing our jobs -- accurately relaying important scientific information to the public to better their understanding of the world, and in turn, strengthen our democracy.
We also find troubling a June 14, 2018 report in The Washington Post that USGS scientists must now get political approval to present their work at major scientific meetings. Those meetings are an important source of research news, which provide journalists with an opportunity to hear USGS scientists present their findings and report on them.
The USGS is not a regulatory or policy-making bureau. Its scientific expertise and integrity are among the most valuable assets the DOI has. Journalists and the public depend on getting timely, credible information from USGS scientists without having to go through politically appointed gatekeepers.
SEJ urges you to make clear in a public statement that scientists are free to talk to reporters about their work, and to share it freely with their scientific colleagues and the public.
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