House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy, R-Pa., and Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., sent a Dec. 17 letter to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy seeking information regarding any use of social media platforms to promote the agency’s Clean Power Plan.
Earlier in the week the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that EPA had engaged in “covert propaganda” relating to its Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule through its use of Thunderclap, a “crowdspeaking platform,” and other social media outlets in an effort to increase support for the rule. Additionally, GAO indicated that EPA engaged in illegal grassroots lobbying and also found that EPA violated the Antideficiency Act when it obligated and expended appropriated funds for its propaganda and grassroots lobby efforts.
Upton said in a Dec. 17 statement: “EPA getting busted for its illegal propaganda and lobbying on the WOTUS rule raises serious red flags, and we want to know if these shenanigans extended to the climate rules. EPA took an aggressive approach with respect to its climate rules and we want to ensure that EPA did not violate the law promoting these rules. The bottom line is EPA betrayed the public trust.”
In the letter to McCarthy, the committee leaders wrote: “EPA’s actions potentially undermined the integrity of the rulemaking process concerning WOTUS, and call into question the use of social media to promote other rulemaking activity. For example, EPA undertook an extensive social media messaging campaign in support of its Clean Power Plan, authoring blog posts, and posting messages on Facebook and Twitter. The agency also used one of its primary Clean Power Plan hashtags (#ActOnClimate) in another Thunderclap campaign that potentially reached over 2.6 million individuals.”
The leaders also requested EPA provide all Clean Power Plan social media and web postings, communications related to EPA’s social media and web postings on the Clean Power Plan, and an accounting of federal funds spent by EPA on soliciting comments in support of Clean Power Plan. The members also requested that the agency “certify in writing that EPA has not engaged in covert propaganda or grassroots lobbying when promoting the Clean Power Plan.”
The Clean Power Plan, published in final form on Oct. 23, and immediately appealed by various parties into federal court, calls for 32% greenhouse gas reductions from existing power plants by 2030, with an interim compliance year of 2022. Getting less publicity is the fact that on the same day, EPA published a final rule that, among other things, requires CO2 capture and storage systems on all new coal-fired power plants going forward.
The GAO, in a Dec. 14 letter and report sent to Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., Chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, said that EPA illegally used social media to support its WOTUS rulemaking. The WOTUS rule extends EPA authority over smaller water bodies and has run into vocal opposition across industries, including from the coal production industry. A number of parties, including Ohio-based coal producer Murray Energy, have appealed the rule into federal court.
GAO said this social media campaign for the rule “violated publicity or propaganda and anti-lobbying provisions contained in appropriations acts.” Section 718 of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, 2014, prohibited the use of EPA’s appropriations for unauthorized publicity or propaganda purposes. Section 715 of the act prohibited the use of EPA’s appropriations for indirect or grassroots lobbying in support of or opposition to pending legislation. These same restrictions applied to EPA’s FY 2015 appropriations. Section 401 of the Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2015, similarly prohibited the use of EPA’s appropriations for grassroots lobbying, the GAO noted.