Dem scrutinizes Pruitt’s Morocco trip, gas industry ties

Dem scrutinizes Pruitt’s Morocco trip, gas industry ties
© Greg Nash

A Senate Democrat is probing a December trip that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittGovernment watchdog probing EPA’s handling of Hurricane Harvey response Wheeler won’t stop America’s addiction to fossil fuels Overnight Energy: Trump rolls back methane pollution rule | EPA watchdog to step down | China puts tariffs on US gas MORE took to Morocco and the degree to which it was meant to benefit the natural gas industry.

“Recent disclosures raise new questions about this trip, and potential future international trips, given your close ties to the oil and gas industry,” Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDem vows to probe 'why the FBI stood down' on Kavanaugh Senate Democrats increase pressure for FBI investigation of Kavanaugh Senate Dems sue Archives to try to force release of Kavanaugh documents MORE (D-R.I.) wrote.

Citing calendars he obtained from the EPA, Whitehouse said in the letter he sent to Pruitt late Tuesday that he only had one briefing before the trip and it was conducted by political staff, not career staff in the agency’s international affairs office, which generally coordinates foreign trips.

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On the five-day trip that the EPA has said cost taxpayers around $40,000, Pruitt only worked one full day and had one-hour meetings the days before and after.

The main purpose of Pruitt’s trip was to tout American liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports, a purpose that Democrats say is not within the EPA’s mission.

And in the time leading up to the Morocco trip, Pruitt met with numerous representatives of associations and companies with interests in LNG exports, including a Kinder Morgan meeting two days before the trip. That company is developing two LNG export terminals.

“If these were the individuals who advised you about your trip before you departed, it would suggest the purpose had little to do with EPA's mission and more to do with interests from your time in Oklahoma,” wrote Whitehouse, a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Pruitt was Oklahoma's attorney general from 2011 until he joined the Trump administration, in February 2017. He frequently sued the Obama administration's EPA over its environmental policies.

“We still do not know the full extent of your financial and political ties to the oil and gas industry, which would stand to benefit from the opening up of new markets for natural gas produced in the U.S.,” he said.

Whitehouse asked for new details about the Morocco trip and whether Pruitt is planning trips to other countries to push LNG exports.

The letter comes amid growing controversies involving Pruitt and pressure from Democrats and a pair of Republicans for him to step down or be fired. He rented a condo co-owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist for $50 for each day he slept there, frequently flew first class on the taxpayers’ dime and spent more than $43,000 on a soundproof booth for his office, among other controversies.

Among Whitehouse's questions were whether his condo rental played any role in the trip. Pruitt’s landlord was Vicki Hart, whose husband, J. Steven Hart, leads the lobbying firm Williams and Jensen. That firm represents Cheniere Energy, which in December was the only company exporting LNG from the lower 48 states.

Democrats and environmentalists have long argued that the Morocco trip was an unnecessary waste of taxpayer money, since LNG exports are not part of EPA’s responsibilities.

“While your home state of Oklahoma is the third-largest producer of natural gas in the country, I don’t understand what the sale of natural gas has to do with the EPA’s mission,” Sen. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthDems should run as economic progressives, says ex-Obama strategist Democrats must reconcile party factions to raise blue wave odds Senate Dems want DOJ review of Giuliani's work for foreign entities MORE (D-Ill.) told Pruitt at a January hearing

“Promotion of natural gas is the kind of thing that the secretary of Energy or perhaps someone running for governor of Oklahoma or some other elected office there, but not consistent with what the head of the EPA should be doing.”

The EPA’s Office of Inspector General is investigating all of Pruitt’s official travel in 2017, including the Morocco trip.