The Obama administration gave leading environmental activists unprecedented access and influence as the Environmental Protection Agency crafted rules limiting carbon emissions from power plants, a Senate committee charged Tuesday in a report that raises new questions about the president’s climate change agenda.
A report from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee breaks down in detail off-the-books meetings and email conversations, sometimes through private, nongovernmental accounts, between top EPA officials and leaders with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations.
Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and committee chairman, is a leading critic of the president’s environmental agenda.
Charges of collusion between the EPA and the environmental movement, along with the fact that a host of former environmental activists have found their way into high-level positions in the Obama administration, are nothing new.
But the Senate study, relying on emails and other records obtained during an ongoing investigation, makes clear that the EPA and top environmental groups see themselves as deeply intertwined in the push to cut carbon emissions and pursue other pieces of President Obama’s broad, climate change agenda.
The report paints a picture of near-constant communication between the two sides, including coordination on public messaging strategies and in-depth discussions about the fine details of Mr. Obama’s climate policies.
The report also draws attention to the “sue and settle” practice, by which an environmental group sues the EPA and the EPA settles the lawsuit by agreeing to enact pieces of the environmental group’s policy agenda. The practice is seen as a shortcut through regulatory procedure.
The EPA and the NRDC vehemently denied the Senate committee’s claims of collusion, and the Sierra Club did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite those denials, it seems clear that the NRDC and other groups were given routine access to top EPA officials and helped craft policies such as the Clean Power Plan, which limits carbon emissions from existing power plants.
Other stakeholders, such as the energy industry, manufacturers and members of the public, were not granted the same access.
“The amount of time the public had to engage on these rules … is a fraction of the time that the NRDC had,” a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee aide told reporters. “One of the issues is that the Clean Air Act requires any information the agency relies on as part of rule-making needs to be included in the docket and publicly disclosed. I have questions about whether that’s been happening.”
The report was released one day after Mr. Obama and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy formally unveiled the Clean Power Plan, which requires a 32 percent reduction in carbon emissions from power plants by 2030.
The plan has touched off a firestorm across the country. Republicans in Congress are vowing to block the regulations any way they can, Republican governors are promising to ignore the rules entirely and a coalition of 15 state attorneys general is preparing lawsuits to challenge the plan in federal court.
The Clean Power Plan regulations follow EPA rules limiting emissions from new fossil-fuel-fired power plants. Those rules and others were heavily influenced by environmental groups, the Senate report says, and the environmental movement and the EPA see themselves as partners in the climate change fight.
In late 2010, shortly after the EPA settled a lawsuit by agreeing to limit emissions from new power plants, Ms. McCarthy — then the agency’s assistant administrator for air and radiation — had an email conversation with the director of the NRDC’s climate and clean air program, David Doniger.
“The announcement is a major achievement. … We’ll be with you at every step in the year ahead,” Mr. Doniger wrote to Ms. McCarthy, according to the report.
“I really appreciate your support and your patience. Enjoy the holiday. This success is yours as much as mine,” Ms. McCarthy replied.
The report lays out a large number of similar conversations.
The apparent collusion between environmental groups and the White House is, to some degree, reminiscent of the heated dispute over Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force during the early years of the Bush administration.
Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, and other organizations such as Judicial Watch, sued the Bush White House and argued that Mr. Cheney had violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires committees set up by the president to conduct business in public and reveal members. They also argued that the task force was exercising unprecedented influence over federal energy policy outside the public’s view.
The lawsuit ultimately reached the Supreme Court, though the justices sent the case back to a lower court. In 2005, a federal appeals court decided that Mr. Cheney’s task force did not have to comply with the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
It’s not clear whether collusion between environmental groups and the EPA will result in legal action. Senate investigators say they are still examining whether any laws have been broken.
The NRDC, echoing the defenses the Bush administration made during the energy task force fight, claims such interactions with the government are not uncommon nor inappropriate in any way.
In a statement, NRDC communications director Edwin Chen dismissed the study based on Mr. Inhofe’s ideological stance and on his own group’s substantively good position.
“This is another attempt to stop us from standing up for clean air, safe water and healthy communities — and strong action to combat climate change. Sen. Inhofe and his allies are trying to protect the big polluters that bankroll their campaigns and are trying to intimidate those who would fight for the environment. We are doing nothing more than petitioning our government — a constitutionally protected right. That’s our job,” Mr. Chen said.
The EPA also disputed the committee’s report, saying critics merely want to undermine the Clean Power Plan.
“There is simply zero merit to the idea that one group had any undue influence on the proposal’s development. This is a flawed narrative driven by cherry-picked and isolated communications that in no way reflect the full breadth and depth of the unprecedented outreach EPA engaged in to formulate and develop the Clean Power Plan,” EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said.