Donald Trump’s Department of Justice coordinated efforts with fossil companies trying to fight off a climate liability lawsuit from the cities of Oakland and San Francisco in early 2018, with one DOJ lawyer talking about working with industry lawyers as a “team”, according to 178 pages of emails obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and shared with InsideClimate News.
The revelation raises questions “about whether government was representing the American people,” InsideClimate writes.
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NRDC used a federal Freedom of Information request to get its hands on the emails, which were written between February and May 2018 and refer to meetings between fossil and industry officials. At the time, “the cities were arguing that oil companies should be held liable for catastrophic flooding, sea level rise, and other harmful consequences caused by climate change,” InsideClimate reports. “The DOJ was preparing an amicus brief in support of the industry, and the Indiana solicitor general was leading the charge by Republican attorneys general from 15 states to also file a court brief supporting the industry.”
While the emails “do not reveal the substance of discussions that took place during the meetings, they bespeak the unapologetically close relationship between the Trump administration and the oil industry,” ICN adds. “They also provide a window into the closely coordinated efforts to block the climate lawsuits between industry and the Justice Department’s environmental division, which touts itself as ‘the nation’s environmental lawyer, and the largest environmental law firm in the country’.”
InsideClimate recounts an email in which Eric Grant, a deputy assistant attorney general in DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, told Indiana’s solicitor general his “boss” had asked him to set up a meeting to discuss the government’s plan to intercede on the companies’ behalf. “That boss “was Jeff Wood, the Trump-appointed acting assistant attorney general leading the Environment and Natural Resources Division,” ICN notes. “Wood had landed at the DOJ after serving on the Trump-Pence campaign and after an earlier stint as staff environmental counsel to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, who would become Trump’s attorney general.”
U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup later dismissed the case, stating that it was up to legislators, not one unelected judge, to decide whether countries around the world are better off without oil. But by then, the emails show, DOJ had been involved in extensive collaboration with the fossils that eventually drew in six of the 24 attorney’s in the division’s Law and Policy Section.
“Justice Department attorneys had multiple conference calls with attorneys for BP and Chevron and hosted at least one in-person meeting at DOJ headquarters in Washington, prompting an attorney for BP to write at one point, ‘thanks again for the helpful discussion last week’,” InsideClimate states, citing the emails. “The string of electronic notes shows the extensive effort DOJ attorneys made in coordinating various meetings with their oil industry counterparts.”
Without knowing the substance of the meetings, Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt said it’s tough to say whether ethical lines were crossed. “If these meetings discussed the logistics of a DOJ amicus filing but not the substance of what the DOJ would file, it may be reason to raise an eyebrow but not a red flag,” he said.
Justin Smith, a former deputy assistant attorney general in DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said it would trigger questions if the meetings got into the substantive issues raised in the lawsuits. “It wouldn’t pass the sniff test if the DOJ was trying to address substantive issues,” he told InsideClimate. “If the meetings were about the logistics, there’s nothing improper.”
NRDC staff attorney Pete Huffman said the behind-the-scenes glimpse in the email still raises serious questions.
“We would expect them to be working in what they think are the best interests of the United States,” he said. “We don’t think that working with the industry against climate action in most of these places is in the best interests of the United States.”
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