Washington Examiner: Biden EPA Taxpayer Settlement Payouts Quietly Soar to Left-Wing Climate Activists 91_Washington_Examiner_EPA

August 10, 2023 03:41 PM



By Gabe Kaminsky, Investigative Reporter | Washington Examiner

EXCLUSIVE — The Environmental Protection Agency in Joe Biden's first two years as president has quietly steered over double the amount in taxpayer-backed payouts to liberal climate activists and other groups than in President Donald Trump's four-year term combined. 

Trump EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt issued a 2017 memo vowing to end "sue and settle," which involves groups challenging the government on aligned issues, followed by agencies ending disputes and approving rules they may be unable to push through Congress. The EPA under Biden, which revoked the memo, spent over $6.9 million in 2021 and 2022 on attorneys fees for settlements with largely environmental groups under the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts, whereas agency payouts were $3.6 million for Trump and $5.7 million during Barack Obama's second presidential term, records reveal.

The cash transfers were unearthed through the Freedom of Information Act by the federal spending watchdog Open the Books and first shared with the Washington Examiner. They underscore how liberal climate advocacy groups have amassed influence and seemingly earned a seat at the table with the government upon Biden assuming office. EPA Administrator Michael Regan has come under fire from the GOP for pushing green energy policies conservatives say are destructive to the fossil fuels industry and benefit China's authoritarian government. 

Congressional Republicans, including on the House Oversight Committee, have raised concerns over the EPA and Interior Department's move to "allow special interest groups to 'sue and settle' with federal agencies without the input of the public and stakeholders" and requested extensive documents on litigation. The EPA has a database on its website that lists settlements, including consent decrees, with various outside organizations.

The EPA paid over $3.6 million in attorneys fees in 2022, while it shelled out $3.2 million in 2021, on lawsuits related to the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts, according to the data shared with the Washington Examiner. The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act give the EPA power to regulate pollutants, while the Endangered Species Act aims to protect and conserve species of plants, wildlife, and fish said to be threatened or at risk of extinction through regulations. 

The total number of EPA settlements related to these three acts was 58 combined in 2021 and 2022. That happens to be the same number that Trump's EPA reached in four years. 

"Offering a chance to push back on new regulations, and putting transparency standards in place for bureaucrats, meant sue-and-settle was no longer paying the same big-government dividends," Open the Books CEO Adam Andrzejewski told the Washington Examiner. "Flash forward to today, though, and the numbers show sue-and-settle tactics are back under President Biden."

"Congress should require radical transparency on the fee petitions, settlement agreements, and records in these cases," Andrzejewski said. "It's the only way to know if we, the taxpayers, are getting ripped off."

Under Trump, taxpayers footed the bill for attorneys fees notching $987,000 in 2020, $1.1 million in 2019, $986,000 in 2018, and $530,000 in 2017 for cases related to the three acts, records show. As for Obama, fees for his second term were $2.4 million in 2016, $1.3 million in 2015, $704,000 in 2014, and $1.2 million in 2013 when it comes to the three acts, according to the unearthed data. 

Between 2013 and 2022, the EPA spent $2.9 million on fees for 47 cases related to Sierra Club, a top climate advocacy group in California, data show. Fees amounted to over $753,000 between 2021 and 2022, compared to $726,000 between 2017 and 2020 for the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. 

For instance, 2022 attorneys fees for Sierra Club and plaintiffs in Sierra Club et al. v. Regan were $45,000. The suit was brought under the Clean Air Act in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California and alleged the agency under Trump failed to vet "loopholes" for regulations related to National Ambient Air Quality Standards in 29 states, according to court records. 

A proposed consent decree was then published in November 2022, which was approved by all parties, to "establish deadlines for EPA to take specified actions," according to a notice in the Federal Register. As a result, the EPA had to post public comments and then reevaluate regulations, court records show.

Cases related to the three acts that involved Sierra Club, which endorsed Biden for president, cost taxpayers $1.5 million between 2013 and 2016, data show. Meanwhile, the group's federal political action committee boosted Democrats with over $250,000 in 2022 and $389,000 in 2020, with $0 going to Republicans, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan campaign finance tracker. 

"The environmental lobby is about running a business and making money," Kathleen Sgamma, president of Western Energy Alliance, an energy and public lands trade group with 200 member companies, told the Washington Examiner. "Besides being funded to the tune of multimillions by left-wing foundations, they sue the government to stop economic activity, and then the government turns around and pays them for being sued."

"It’s a racket," she added. 

Cases brought by Northwest Environmental Advocates, an Oregon group, cost taxpayers $1.3 million in attorneys fees between 2013 and 2021 for the three acts, according to data. 

A staggering $1.2 million of that sum was in 2021 in connection to two different cases. The EPA dished out over $449,000 in 2021 alone in attorneys fees on an NEA case alleging that the government did not "ensure the protection and restoration of fresh and marine waters" in Oregon, according to court records. 

"As far as I know, we have no more litigation against the Biden administration than against federal agencies under any other administration because we don’t pay any attention to who the president of the United States is when we file cases," Nina Bell, executive director of NEA, told the Washington Examiner

"Finally, whatever you think you’re reading about Northwest Environmental Advocates’ receiving money, we have not and will not ever because it is contrary to law for plaintiffs to receive financial benefits," Bell said. "Perhaps you are confused and believe that our lawyers are us; they are not. Lawyers who bring winning cases, litigated or settled, are entitled to receive payment. Oddly enough, that happens across the country every day of the week."

Chris Horner, an energy and environmental attorney, said Bell seems to be "splitting hairs," noting, "There is no dispute that taxpayers are underwriting their litigation."

Other entities that have been tied to attorneys fees totaling $4.2 million for the three acts between 2013 and 2022 included the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Air Alliance Houston, State of California, American Lung Association, Earth Island Institute, Association of Irritated Residents, and State of New York, according to data. 

The Berkeley, California, environmental activist group Earth Island Institute and plaintiffs benefited from over $278,000 in 2022 attorneys fees in connection to its recent lawsuit alleging that the EPA skirted the Clean Water Act by not revising regulations on chemicals. The EPA was later given until 2023 to issue a rule updating regulations after a federal judge ruled in favor of the institute, court records show

"Litigation is sometimes needed to force federal agencies to comply with the laws Congress enacted to protect the public's health and the environment," Mark Drajem, a spokesman for the NRDC, told the Washington Examiner. "When we settle, it's because the agency has agreed to meet its legal obligations. That's not partisan, and it’s not politics. We're proud of our record protecting the public."

"Sue and settle" particularly thrived as practice under Obama, with the EPA choosing not to defend itself in more than 60 lawsuits from special interests, leading to over 100 new regulations, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The EPA entered into 28 consent decrees with regard to the Clean Air Act during President George W. Bush's second term, compared to 77 during Obama's second term, according to the chamber. 

Meanwhile, Senate and House Republicans introduced legislation in May that aims to bolster transparency for consent decrees and settlement cases. The proposals would require agencies to submit annual reports to Congress outlining details, including funds shelled out, on "sue and settle" cases.

"Environmental groups have no financial accountability and are able to hold up energy and other projects that create jobs and government revenue, yet they’re the ones that get paid," Sgamma added. 

The EPA did not reply to requests for comment.


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