Trump Rules: How Rollbacks at Scott Pruitt’s E.P.A. Are a Boon to Oil and Gas

Trump Rules: How Rollbacks at Scott Pruitt’s E.P.A. Are a Boon to Oil and Gas

- in Business

“You can smell it in the air,” said John Fenton, a former Devon contract worker turned environmentalist who monitors oil and gas facilities scattered across Fremont County using an infrared camera.

At Devon, Mr. Fenton repaired heating equipment and did general maintenance jobs. He later worked elsewhere in the gas fields welding pipes for as much as $50 an hour. But he stopped when wells started cropping up close to residential areas, including about 200 feet from his Fremont County ranch. His neighbors’ water turned black. His wife, Catherine, complained of losing her senses of smell and taste.

“These companies are emboldened by this remoteness to not do anything,” he said.

But Mr. Fenton’s concerns have not gained wider traction. Residents fret mostly about the crackdown on energy companies under Mr. Obama, which coincided with a downturn in oil and gas production brought on largely by a glut in the market and lower energy prices. That has made his tough approach a scapegoat for the downturn, and it is difficult to overstate the animosity toward federal environmental agencies.

Wyoming was one of around two dozen states that sued to block regulations imposed by the Clean Power Plan, Mr. Obama’s effort to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. On the campaign trail, Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and the state’s sole member of the House of Representatives, repeatedly called for a reduction in the size and authority of the E.P.A.

“The E.P.A. is the evil empire here,” said Steven R. Peck, publisher of The Ranger, Fremont County’s daily newspaper. “But the regulatory game hasn’t changed as much as the oil and gas industry itself,” he said.

“People think, ‘If we could just drill more wells a year,’” he said, “but we also need clean energy and jobs.”

In Riverton, empty houses dot the city. The unemployment rate hovered around 7 percent earlier this year before dropping in March to 6.4 percent as seasonal jobs kicked in. The area’s largest private employers are casinos.

“Everything’s gone down, down,” said Frenchie Warren, 59, a member of the Arapaho tribe, who sat killing time one recent afternoon on a bench next to a Shell gas station.

Mr. Warren lost his $23-an-hour job at the SST Energy Corporation earlier this year after he mangled his hand in a chain, he said. He is bitter toward Washington politicians, who he said were squeezing the life out of Riverton.

“They aren’t helping us,” Mr. Warren said. “If I had a gun, I’d shoot them.”

Frenchie Warren said he lost his job at the SST Energy Corporation after injuring his hand. He has no trust in Washington politicians. “They aren’t helping us,” he said.

Dan Cepeda for The New York Times

Tacking Hard in Another Direction

They gathered in the Rachel Carson Green Room at the E.P.A.’s headquarters in Washington, about 75 agency employees in a high-ceiling conference room named after the famed environmentalist whose book “Silent Spring” helped inspire the modern environmental movement.

Mr. Pruitt, who a few days earlier had been confirmed as the new E.P.A. administrator, stood on the stage and tried to calm the nerves of the agency’s staff in the room, as well as thousands more watching remotely.

“You don’t know me very well,” Mr. Pruitt said. “In fact, you don’t know me hardly at all other than maybe what you’ve read in the newspaper and seen on the news. … I look forward to sharing the rest of the story with you as we spend time together.”

Catherine McCabe, the outgoing acting administrator, presented Mr. Pruitt with a baseball cap that featured the agency’s iconic logo of a blooming flower surrounded by a sphere that represents blue sky, green earth and blue-green water.

But it quickly became clear that a new day had arrived at the E.P.A. as Mr. Pruitt offered a hint of his priorities at the agency. “I believe that we as an agency and we as a nation can be both pro-energy and -jobs, and pro-environment,” he said. “That we don’t have to choose between the two.”

Mr. Pruitt held up an an E.P.A. cap after he addressed employees upon joining the agency in February. “I believe that we as an agency and we as a nation can be both pro-energy and -jobs, and pro-environment,” he told them.

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Within weeks, the dismantling of the Obama-era rules was set in motion, first through broad proclamations from the White House as Mr. Trump signed executive orders, and later through specific administrative actions by Mr. Pruitt.

In April, Mr. Pruitt notified the oil and gas industry that he was granting its wish to at least temporarily suspend the agency’s new rule. “American businesses should have the opportunity to review new requirements, assess economic impacts and report back, before those new requirements are finalized,” he said in a statement then.

Devon Energy was poised to be a major beneficiary of the changes.

Killing the methane rule would save Devon an estimated $430,000 a year in the four states where it operates wells, according to an analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund, although if industry estimates of the actual costs are accurate, the savings may be much higher.

A month earlier, Mr. Pruitt had squelched a request from the E.P.A. that 15,000 oil and gas companies nationwide collect data on methane emissions to help the agency fine-tune its regulations. Devon and other companies feared the data would be used to justify even tighter controls, so Mr. Pruitt canceled the requirement.

Devon has other allies on the Trump team.

A Devon lobbyist, Michael Catanzaro, resigned from his post and now is the top White House adviser on energy policy. His lobbying disclosure report filed on Jan. 19 — the day before Mr. Trump was sworn in — lists his lobbying work for Devon as targeting “methane emissions from oil and gas production.”

Ms. Rosen, the former Romney campaign worker who until late last year was Devon’s top in-house lobbyist in Washington, was spotted walking into transition team meetings hosted by Mr. Trump’s advisers after the election.

The industry also has important allies in Congress, like Senator John A. Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which oversees the E.P.A. and the Interior Department.

On the day the Senate voted, 54-46, to move ahead with Mr. Pruitt’s confirmation, Mr. Barrasso walked off the Senate floor and headed to Charlie Palmer Steak, just across the street from the Senate side of the Capitol. Mr. Barrasso would not say who his guests were, but campaign finance records show that within roughly a month of that event, donations came in from Devon, as well as Chevron, Shell, Koch Industries and the American Petroleum Institute. Mr. Barrasso has collected more than $500,000 in contributions from the oil and gas industry in the last two years.

OPEN Document

Document: Devon Energy’s Fight Against Environmental Regulation

Some Democrats in Congress have questioned whether Mr. Pruitt is taking actions explicitly to benefit Devon and other financial supporters.

In a letter last month, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, and three other Senate Democrats pressed Mr. Pruitt to explain why he canceled the data-collection effort on methane — suggesting it might be a favor to industry friends.

After a barrage of such questions, Mr. Pruitt agreed in early May to recuse himself from taking part in the agency’s response to the lawsuits he had filed as attorney general, including one challenging the E.P.A.’s methane rule.

Oil and gas companies are hoping that Mr. Pruitt’s business-friendly approach will extended to enforcement issues. Devon was first targeted by the E.P.A. in 2014, after it was accused of illegally discharging 80 tons a year of volatile organic compounds into the Wyoming air. The company had been close to reaching a settlement with the federal government.

Devon disclosed in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, on Feb. 15, that negotiations with the E.P.A. “may result in a fine or penalty in excess of $100,000.”

But two days after that disclosure, Mr. Pruitt was confirmed as E.P.A. administrator, and by the next week, Devon was changing its tune.

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