The Trump administration is refusing to even respond to a public information request on climate science, accusing a public non-profit of trying to trigger an “endless fishing expedition.”
Lawyers for the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency made the claim in response to a lawsuit brought by the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The organization had filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act to determine what sort of analysis EPA head Scott Pruitt relied on–when making declarative statements about climate change on cable news.
“PEER is requesting only existing documents supporting official Agency statements,” the group said on Monday in filings submitted to a federal judge in Washington.
Last month, Justice Department and EPA lawyers said that the organization wasn’t even entitled to a query.
“Plaintiff’s FOIA request is an attempt to force an agency to answer questions, conduct research, and take substantive positions on matters of public policy,” the Trump administration’s argued. “This is an inappropriate and impermissible use of FOIA.”
At the heart of the dispute is what kind of agency analysis was Pruitt referring to in a March interview with CNBC, when he said: “there’s a tremendous disagreement about the impact” in a discussion about the impact of “human activity on the climate.”
In its most recent filings, PEER noted that the EPA initially directed the non-profit to “both the EPA’s own website and the US Global Change Research Program website for material responsive to its FOIA request.”
The organization said that “those websites in fact contradict Administrator’s Pruitt’s statements to CNBC, and therefore are not responsive to PEER’s request.”
“PEER made the request in part because it could find not publicly available information that supported Administrator Pruitt’s statements,” the organization added.
PEER additionally noted that, under Pruitt’s leadership, the EPA “has removed a large number of relevant climate change documents from its website.”
Pruitt has been blasted by critics for shrouding agency work in secrecy. Since taking over, the EPA chief has refused to make his schedule public, while rolling back data collection and enforcement work.
The EPA head has also exerted direct control over Superfund pollution clean-up sites worth more than $50 million.
“This new arrangement allows him to bypass staff experts and confer one-side benefits on corporate polluters,” PEER said in June about the Superfund changes.
Critics at the agency say Pruitt makes his availability to employees scarce and is wary of issuing written orders, according to The New York Times. The paper also reported in September that Pruitt ordered a $24,570 soundproof booth for “privacy.”
Before being nominated by Trump to lead his EPA, Pruitt made a name for himself aggressively attacking the agency, decrying its impact on the energy industry. As Oklahoma Attorney General, he sued President Obama’s EPA numerous times, with eight of those cases ongoing at the time of his January confirmation hearing.
During those proceedings, Pruitt refused to categorically recuse himself from any matter involving litigation he helped bring as Oklahoma’s top prosecutor.