Energy Sector And EPA Nominee: Oklahoma Strong

Oklahoma is deeply and historically tied to oil and gas.

By Niv Sultan

 Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-R.I.) diagram of contributions from the energy sector to Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R-Okla.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-R.I.) diagram of contributions from the energy sector to Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R-Okla.) presented during the latter’s confirmation hearing.

Scott Pruitt’s confirmation hearing last week involved some pointed visual props. Making the case that Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general who is President Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is cozy with the energy sector, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) held up a chart full of boxes and arrows.

All the organizations listed on the top half of the chart had contributed to Pruitt’s electoral efforts. At one point, Whitehouse asked Pruitt if the donors had also given to Pruitt’s Oklahoma Strong Leadership PAC. Pruitt’s response: “I’m not sure about that, senator.”

Luckily for Pruitt, we at OpenSecrets Blog can help him out. In the 2016 election cycle, among the organizations on the chart that have PACs, none used them to contribute to Pruitt’s Oklahoma Strong. Individually, J. Larry Nichols, a co-founder and the chairman emeritus of Devon Energy, gave the leadership PAC $5,000 in 2015. 

Other PACs filled in where the groups on Whitehouse’s poster fell short, providing Oklahoma Strong with $40,000 in 2015-2016 — 40 percent of which came from organizations with connections to the energy sector. Alliance Coal kicked in $5,000, for example, and $1,000 came from Cozen O’Connor, a law firm that has an energy, environmental and public utilities practice.

(Side note: Pruitt might have preferred to have been nominated to the post by a different president; Oklahoma Strong gave $2,700 to former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) and nothing to the now-sitting chief executive.)

The leadership PAC, of course, is just one of the routes by which the industry has shown its affection for Pruitt. Let’s go through some of the others:

Pruitt’s campaign committee: Over the course of Pruitt’s 2010 and 2014 campaigns for Oklahoma’s Attorney General seat, his campaign committee, Scott Pruitt for Attorney General, received more than $256,500 from the energy sector, including contributions from Arch Coal and ONEOK, Inc. Pruitt ran unopposed in the 2014 race.

Want icing on that cake? A co-chairman of his re-election campaign was Harold Hamm, the founder and CEO of oil and natural gas company Continental Resources — which is based in Pruitt’s state of Oklahoma.

Overall, since 2002, Pruitt has directly received more than $350,000 in contributions from individuals and groups in the energy sector. (Before becoming AG, Pruitt had been in the Oklahoma state Senate, and ran an unsuccessful race for lieutenant governor in 2006.)

Oklahoma is deeply and historically tied to oil and gas, and Pruitt has repeatedly battled federal regulations that could get in the industry’s way, suing EPA numerous times.

“It’s not just a lawyer taking a position; this is someone who really believes in this,” said Larry Noble, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center. Pruitt “believes that environmental laws have become too restrictive on business.”

The super PAC: In the 2016 cycle, Jeffrey McDougall, the founder and president of Oklahoma-based JMA Energy Company, contributed $25,000 to Liberty 2.0, a super PAC affiliated with Pruitt. The super PAC also received $50,000 from Murray Energy (one of the organizations on Whitehouse’s chart).

The sole PAC contributor to Liberty 2.0 in the cycle was, fittingly, the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association. The PAC gave Liberty 2.0 $2,500.

Republican Attorneys General: The Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), the 527 advocacy group that Pruitt chaired in 2013 and 2014, received a whopping $425,000 from Pinnacle West Capital, an electric utility company, in the 2014 cycle. More contributions came from Ariel Corp ($300,000) and Koch Industries (over $130,000), among others.

Under Pruitt’s leadership, RAGA also received more than $155,000 from the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit of which Pruitt was chairman until November 2016. Because the Rule of Law Defense Fund is a “social welfare” organization, it does not need to disclose its donors, so it’s unknown whether it received financial backing from energy groups.

Other striking elements of Pruitt’s relationship with the energy sector include the 2011 letter he sent to EPA’s administrator claiming the agency “may be significantly overestimating methane emissions from natural gas production” — the twist being that the content of the letter was provided by Devon Energy lawyers, as later discovered by the New York Times. The attorney general’s staff sent the message, with Pruitt’s signature, after changing 37 of 1,016 words. And POLITICO reported that a new 501(c)(4) organization, Protecting America Now (not to be confused with Protect Americans Now, a different nonprofit), has formed to support Pruitt’s appointment.

Given Pruitt’s proven track record, it’s reasonable to assume EPA under his leadership would be quite a different agency than it was under former President Barack Obama, when it embraced regulation and action to counter climate change.

“What we can expect from this is a very weakened EPA that is going to give the energy sector a lot of freedom under environmental laws, and it’s going to do it under the philosophy of ‘leave it up to the states and let’s not hamper business,’” said Noble of the Campaign Legal Center. “But what’s going to suffer is any kind of approach toward national environmental regulation.”

Neither Protecting America Now nor Trump’s transition team responded to requests for comment.

A committee vote on Pruitt’s confirmation hasn’t yet been scheduled.