The head of the Environmental Protection Agency is under fire after news that he rented from the wife of a lobbyist who works on energy issues, drawing further attention to his connections with the natural gas industry.
An agency lawyer says there was nothing wrong with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision to rent a room in a Washington, D.C., condo for $50 a night, but critics say the owners’ ties to the energy industry raise red flags.
As chairman of the firm Williams & Jensen, Steven Hart has represented a slew of companies in the last year ranging from the Coca-Cola Company to United Airlines. But one client — Cheniere Energy — has attracted attention because of the EPA’s influence on the energy industry.
Hart collected $80,000 in fees from the company last year to lobby on “issues related to the export of liquefied natural gas (LNG), approval of LNG exports and export facilities,” according to disclosure forms.
Cheniere Energy is best known for its role in the growing U.S. liquefied natural gas industry. The company, which trades with the apt ticker symbol LNG, made a big bet building LNG export terminals on the U.S. Gulf Coast and in 2016 became the first company to ship liquefied natural gas abroad from the continental U.S. Since then, Cheniere has expanded its footprint, shipping or planning to ship LNG to places including China and Poland.
Theoretically, that’s none of the EPA’s business. The agency regulates emissions from domestic power plants, pipelines and extraction sites while the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approves new pipelines and export terminals.
But Pruitt has made promoting the fossil fuels industry a priority during his time in office. This week he visited Wyoming coal country where he promoted exports of the energy source. Pruitt told TIME in the fall that he views energy companies as “stakeholders” rather than “polluters” in response to criticism that he had spent too much time meeting with energy industry officials.
“I don’t spend any time with polluters, I prosecute polluters,” he said in an interview at the time. “What I am spending time with are stakeholders who care about outcomes.”
One trip to Morocco last December during which Pruitt met with top foreign affairs and energy officials has drawn particular scrutiny. The EPA cited outlining the “potential benefit of liquified natural gas (LNG) imports on Morocco’s economy” as a reason for the trip even though promoting U.S. energy is not technically part of Pruitt’s job description. The trip was also criticized because the EPA did not disclose the trip to the press until after it had begun.
Cheniere currently owns the only operational LNG export terminal and would presumably be the supplier of the fuel source to Morocco. Five other facilities are under construction today, only one of which is being developed by Cheniere, according to information from the Energy Information Administration.
Before taking office Pruitt’s work as Oklahoma attorney general often aided the oil and gas industry. A 2014 New York Times report documented how Pruitt sent complaints to the EPA at the request of energy companies on several occasions. And he Pruitt has acknowledged fundraising with energy companies.
EPA Senior Counsel for Ethics Justina Fugh called Pruitt’s apartment rental arrangement a “routine business transaction and permissible even if from a personal friend,” according to a statement sent from an EPA spokesperson. The spokesperson said Pruitt lived in the apartment “while transitioning to Washington” and left in July.
J. Steven Hart did not formally own the condo. Instead, it is owned by a limited liability company that is in turn owned in part by Hart’s wife Vicki. Hart told ABC News that his wife is a minority owner.
The news comes as Trump’s Cabinet is under fire for a number of lapses. Pruitt has been criticized for spending $105,000 on first-class flights in his first year in office. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned in September after racking up more than a million dollars in flights on private jets. And Trump fired Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin this week after the official came under fire for spending government money for his wife to travel to Europe and improperly accepting tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament.
So far, Pruitt has managed to avoid censure from Trump, with some even floating a rumor that he could get promoted to attorney general, and promoting U.S. energy is unlikely to bother the president, who has frequently promised that his presidency will bring U.S. “energy dominance.”