Trump team relaxes EPA restrictions on media and contracts

AP News
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Posted: Feb 03, 2017 5:00 PM
Trump team relaxes EPA restrictions on media and contracts

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration said Friday it has thawed its temporary freeze on contract and grant approvals at the Environmental Protection Agency, with all $3.9 billion in planned spending moving forward.

A media blackout at the agency also appears to have been partially lifted, as a trickle of press releases were issued by the EPA this week. However, the agency has still not posted to its official Twitter feed since President Donald Trump's Jan. 20 inauguration, and the volume of information flowing from the agency is a fraction of what it was under former President Barack Obama.

The Associated Press and other media outlets reported last week that Trump political appointees had instructed EPA staff not to issue press releases or make posts to the agency's official social media accounts without prior approval. Contract and grant spending at the agency was also put on hold, prompting confusion and concern among state agencies reliant on federal funding for ongoing environmental programs and pollution clean-ups.

Trump's pick to serve as EPA administrator, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, cleared a Senate committee vote Thursday and appears headed for confirmation by the full chamber in the coming weeks. While Pruitt's nomination has been enthusiastically praised by Republicans and the fossil fuel industry, Democrats and environmental groups said his confirmation would be a disaster for EPA.

The Trump team also appears to be distancing itself from some of the more controversial comments made by Myron Ebell, who led transition efforts at EPA prior to the president's swearing in.

In a wide-ranging interview with the AP last week, Ebell said he expects Trump to seek significant budget and staff cuts at the agency. Ebell declined to discuss his specific recommendations to the new president on how many EPA staff should be targeted for pink slips but said personally he would like to see the agency's size slashed to about half of its current 15,000 employees.

Ebell also said he fully expects Trump to follow through on campaign promises to drop Obama's plan to regulate carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and to withdraw from the Paris accord on climate change. Trump has for years publicly questioned the validity of mainstream climate science, suggesting that global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese to hamstring U.S. economic competitiveness.

In an email sent to EPA employees earlier this week, the current leader of the Trump team at the EPA stressed that "no final decisions" had yet been made.

"Many news outlets are quoting individuals who are no longer serving on the EPA transition team," said Don Benton, a senior White House adviser on environmental issues, in the email. "I am not able to validate or reject the statements made by these individuals, since I am not directly working with them."

In recent days, there have also been numerous edits and deletions made to the EPA's website, especially on pages that previously included information about climate-change initiatives championed under Obama. However, fears among many academics and environmentalists that the new administration would completely strip climate facts and data from the site have thus far not materialized.

The EPA's public affairs staff did not respond Friday to a request for comment about the ongoing changes to the agency's webpages.

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Follow AP environmental reporter Biesecker at Twitter.com/mbieseck