As President Donald Trump announced this week that the Environmental Protection Agency will roll back an Obama policy that environmentalists say safeguards drinking water for one in three Americans, The Intercept reports that the person Trump has tapped to be the EPA’s water safety official is a former lobbyist with deep ties to a fossil fuel advocacy group that promotes the Dakota Access pipeline and offshore drilling. We speak with Lee Fang, investigative journalist at The Intercept covering the intersection of money and politics.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the latest move by the Trump administration to undo President Obama’s environmental legacy. Trump has already withdrawn the United States from the Paris climate change agreement, rescinded the Clean Power Plan, reversed a moratorium on leasing federal lands for coal mining and proposed deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency. On Tuesday, the EPA announced new plans to roll back an Obama administration policy that environmentalists say will remove drinking water safeguards for one in three Americans and threaten thousands of streams that flow into large rivers and lakes, as well as wetland areas that filter pollutants and absorb floodwaters. The 2015 regulation, known as Waters of the United States, determined that more than half of the country’s waterways are covered under the Clean Water Act.
AMY GOODMAN: Now The Intercept has revealed the person that President Trump has tapped to head the EPA agency in charge of water safety is a former lobbyist with deep ties to a fossil fuel advocacy group that promotes the Dakota Access pipeline and offshore drilling. Dennis Lee Forsgren will help oversee the EPA’s Office of Water, which implements the landmark Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Act, that were passed in the early ’70s. This includes studying the toxic effects of fracking on groundwater safety, the downstream consequences of industrial pollutants, and the environmental impacts of oil spills.
For more, we go to San Francisco. We’re joined by Lee Fang, investigative journalist at The Intercept covering the intersection of money and politics. His latest piece, "EPA’s New Water Safety Official is a Lobbyist with Deep Ties to the Dakota Access Pipeline."
Lee, welcome back to Democracy Now! Tell us what you found.
LEE FANG: Amy and Nermeen, thank you so much for having me.
The latest political appointee in the Trump administration, as you mentioned, is Dennis Lee Forsgren. This is an individual who’s been appointed to head up the department within the EPA that deals with safe drinking water and, you know, reviewing research into water safety. And this is a potentially problematic political appointee, because this person comes directly from a fossil fuel lobbying firm, HBW Resources, that is kind of infamous for cloak-and-dagger tactics. They were very prominent in the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline and, more recently, on the Dakota Access pipeline.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, who are—Lee Fang, just tell us a little bit more about HBW Resources and who their clients have been.
LEE FANG: Well, we’ve tracked HBW for a while now, and this is a lobbying firm that actually specializes in kind of deceptive tactics. And I’ll just give you three examples of that.
They operate a kind of fake consumer group. This is the Consumer Energy Alliance, purportedly, you know, an organization that represents mom-and-pop energy users. But, in fact, this is an organization fully controlled by these fossil fuel lobbyists, funded by large oil and gas companies, oil refineries, that goes out and kind of misrepresents itself to influence the public debate around these oil and gas issues.
Another example is the fight over Arctic drilling. You know, when Shell Oil was pushing to drill in a very sensitive area of the environment near Alaska, there was a letter-writing campaign to kind of convince regulators to give them approval. And HBW and CEA helped facilitate a lot of these letters. One of these letters supposedly came from an onion farmer group. But we looked at these letters, and they were essentially copied and pasted from language provided by these lobbyists. So it didn’t seem like a truly authentic letter. They kind of specialize in these type of astroturf or fake grassroots strategies.
And on the Dakota Access pipeline, you know, these same lobbyists were involved in setting up events and going up to Standing Rock and being quoted in the media. They attacked the protesters at Standing Rock, claiming that the protesters who went to demonstrate against the pipeline, they weren’t interested in protecting the environment, that the people involved in these protests were simply going up there to slow down the American economy. And, you know, if you’ve talked to any of these protesters, that’s clearly not true. But that’s kind of part and parcel to the tactics used by this lobbying firm.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to read a statement by Consumer Energy Alliance President David Holt in October 2016 during the protests by waterkeepers against the Dakota Access pipeline. Holt stated, quote, "The steps taken by these individuals to sabotage pipelines—in addition to the threats, intimidation, and cyber-bullying tactics they are using—clearly show that their agenda has nothing to do with protecting the environment and everything to do with shutting down the American economy and hurting everyday Americans, families, small business, and our economic way of life." So, Lee Fang, can you respond to that and also explain who the funders are for the CEA, the Consumer Energy Alliance?
LEE FANG: Right. Well, you know, the CEA group, you know, they pretend to be an independent organization, but we’ve gone through tax filings and found that large oil refineries, companies like Koch Industries, that you previously referenced on your show, and Phillips 66, these big kind of industrial polluters, are providing a significant portion of the financing for CEA. And, you know, the quote that you just read is kind of a typical strategy. They place advertisements, they write letters to the editor, they hold rallies and kind of organize opposition to actual social movements and to grassroots groups. And the individual that provided that quote you just read, you know, he says that he is a voice of the consumer, but actually he’s just another person at the same lobbying firm where Dennis Lee Forsgren is from. So, you know, they control this fake consumer group. They go out, and they use these kind of aggressive tactics to diminish the work of social movements.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, earlier this week, the EPA taking steps to rescind the Waters of the United States rule, explain what the administration is trying to do and how it links in to the current man that Trump has tapped, Forsgren?
LEE FANG: Well, the Waters of the United States rule is a major achievement by the Obama administration. It extends Clean Water Act protections. You know, this law originally applied only to large bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay. But the regulation in 2015 extended these protections to wetlands and streams, bodies of water that feed into larger bodies like the Chesapeake Bay. And this has been bitterly opposed by lobbyists. We see big agribusiness and industrial polluters lobbying very aggressively against this rule. You know, back when there was the debt ceiling fight, the government shutdown fight, lobbyists attempted to attach budget riders to repeal this rule, and they were unsuccessful.
But now with the Trump administration, they have another opportunity to repeal this regulation, and that’s exactly the process that began this week. The Office of Water in the EPA will be managing that process. And, you know, the EPA, under the Trump administration, is a perfect example of industry capture. From the top of the administration down, we’ve seen political appointees directly from industry. You know, the legal affairs office is now staffed by Trump administration appointees from the utility industry. We see a coal lobbyist as the number two appointee. Just this week we saw another oil and gas lobbyist from the American Petroleum Institute appointed to another legal affairs office of the EPA. So, as the EPA moves to repeal these environmental safeguards, you literally have oil and gas lobbyists, who have spent the last, you know, three to four years fighting this regulation, now in charge of repealing it.
AMY GOODMAN: Does Forsgren have to go through congressional approval, Lee Fang?
LEE FANG: No, and that’s kind of an interesting dynamic here. You know—
AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.
LEE FANG: No, he does not. He’s a deputy administrator. And the EPA has been pushing through a lot of deputy roles that do not require Senate confirmation.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll leave it there, but we’re going to interview you about other issues and post it at democracynow.org.