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EPA's Running Out of Time to Produce Any Documents That Back Up Pruitt's Climate Denial

New federal court order says agency must turn over documents in FOIA request

Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/cc)

Four weeks.

That's how long the Environmental Protection Agency has to "promptly perform a search and produce the documents" in its possession that underpin Administrator Scott Pruitt's claim that human activity is not a "primary contributor" to the climate crisis, and any studies that support that assertion.

The directive comes from a federal court order (pdf), issued Friday, which smacks down the EPA's efforts to reject a FOIA request from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

The group first filed that request on March 10, 2017—that's a day after Pruitt, speaking in his official capacity, said on CNBC: "I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there's tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it's a primary contributor to the global warming that we see."

Beryl Howell, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, dismissed the EPA's characterization of the FOIA request as "an interrogation" with "simply a reach too far." Instead, she wrote, it was a fair request that reasonably describes the records sought and creates no undue burden, so the EPA is not legally justified in its lack of compliance.

She further noted that "EPA's strained attempt to raise an epistemological smokescreen will not work here to vade its obligations under the FOIA," and: "EPA's apparent concern about taking a position on climate change is puzzling since EPA has already taken a public position on the causes of climate change."

She added:

Particularly troubling is the apparent premise of this agency challenge to the FOIA request, namely: that the evidentiary basis for a policy or factual statement by an agency head, including about the scientific factors contributing to climate change, is inherently unknowable. Such a premise runs directly counter to "an axiom of administrative law that an agency's explanation of the basis for its decision must include 'a rational connection between the facts found and the choice made,'"  and the "responsibility of the agency to explain the ratio nale and factual basis for its decision."

Howell also ordered the agency to finish up its search for related records by July 2, 2018 and to disclose them to PEER. She gave the agency an additional week to explain to the group its rationale for withholding any documents.

"The beauty of FOIA is that a government agency can run but ultimately can't hide,” stated PEER senior counsel Paula Dinerstein. "This suit forces EPA to determine whether Mr. Pruitt's statements had a factual basis or were full of hot air."

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