When White House officials visit North Dakota, they typically carve out some face time for voters in the rural, oil-rich state. In 2014, Gina McCarthy, then head of the Environmental Protection Agency, paid a visit as a “listener and a saleswoman,” saying she had to be “everywhere” because “people have to have a relationship with me.” Months later, then-Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz toured the state and held public talks about future policy and the quivering price of Bakken crude.
The current EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, is taking a different approach.
During his Wednesday visit to North Dakota, Pruitt was scheduled to hold two events. The first, a roundtable discussion in Fargo, focused on the Waters of the U.S. Rule, an Obama-era regulation he has vowed to reverse. The second, in Grand Forks, takes place at an energy research laboratory owned by the University of North Dakota.
The public and press were barred from attending both events.
I’m afraid this is just going to be used as a partisan political event. Tyler Axness, local political blogger
“The EPA impacts all of our major industries and, for some reason, we’re not going to be able to see or hear the conversations going on,” Tyler Axness, a former Democratic state senator who now runs the local politics blog NDxPlains, told HuffPost. “Something seems off about that.”
Pruitt’s tenure so far as the nation’s top regulator charged with safeguarding the environment and public health has been unusual. He spent his first weeks in office aggressively courting oil, gas and coal executives, speaking at industry events and meeting privately with company chieftains. He met with only a handful of environmental and public health advocates, an imbalance that former agency officials found alarming.
Unlike his predecessor, Pruitt doesn’t release his schedule to the public via the EPA website. He has requested funds for a personal security detail 24 hours a day, seven days a week ― an unprecedented move for an EPA boss ― as he pushes dramatic cuts to the agency’s budget. He avoids media interviews, save for rare appearances on friendly outlets like Fox News or conservative columnist Hugh Hewitt’s talk radio show.
In that spirit, Pruitt went on another conservative talk radio show in North Dakota, hosted by Scott Hennen, on Wednesday morning. EPA spokeswoman Amy Graham said he also spoke with WDAY, an ABC TV affiliate.
But after the first meeting in Fargo, Pruitt “left immediately without speaking to news reporters,” according to The Forum, a local newspaper.
“We know Scott Pruitt feels threatened when he’s not in a room full of like-minded fossil fuel grifters, so it’s not a huge surprise he’s hiding from the media,” Travis Nichols, a Greenpeace spokesman, told HuffPost. “It is a shame, though, for the people of North Dakota, who deserve answers about the protections for their air, water and health that Pruitt wants to destroy.”
Asked why the meetings were closed to ordinary citizens, Graham told HuffPost that the events would be “widely attended” by state, local and federal officials as well as industry representatives and university officials.
“Governor Burgum, Senator Hoeven, Senator Heitkamp and leaders across North Dakota were invited to today’s meeting about” the Waters of the U.S. rule, Graham said in a statement. “Additionally, Fargo’s WDAY was invited to briefly attend today’s meeting, along with the opportunity to talk with Administrator Pruitt about his agenda to protect the environment.”
A spokesman for Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a loyal defender of President Donald Trump who helped arrange Pruitt’s meetings in the state, said local journalists would get time for some questions after each of the meetings ― although The Forum’s report seems to contradict that plan.
That didn’t seem like enough public access to Axness.
“I fear what’s going to happen with this secrecy and not allowing open, independent analysis of the meeting is you’re going to have politicians come out and only offer their manufactured talking points,” he said. “I’m afraid this is just going to be used as a partisan political event.”
A top Democratic lawmaker in North Dakota suggested that even Democratic leaders weren’t exactly welcomed to the meetings, which were arranged by Republican Gov. Doug Burgum’s office. (The governor’s spokeswoman did not return two calls requesting comment.) State Rep. Corey Mock (D), the minority leader in North Dakota’s House of Representatives, said he was offered an invitation only after calling the governor’s office and requesting access for ranking Democrats. The governor invited U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) to the meetings, though she did not attend.
“I’m glad the meeting was arranged,” Mock told HuffPost. “But I certainly would think that [Pruitt] would be doing himself a service by having public availability and getting input from North Dakota citizens who are directly affected by policies that state and federal officials pass.”
Mock added that when Pruitt comes to North Dakota and doesn’t meet with the public, “that’s a missed opportunity.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that Pruitt went on WDAY’s AM radio station. He appeared on the station’s TV broadcast.