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A look back at the trading of favors that drives Trump’s anti-environment agenda

Have you heard the sleazy tale about “glider trucks,” shady campaign contributions, and a tiny business interest’s big gift from Donald Trump and his Environmental Protection Agency?

photo of scott pruitt
Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt

Have you heard the sleazy tale about “glider trucks,” shady campaign contributions, and a tiny business interest’s big gift from Donald Trump and his Environmental Protection Agency?

I myself had missed the New York Times investigative report earlier this year — lost it, I suppose, in the ceaseless news of assaults on public health, public lands and waters, and all the other assets that make each of us the true beneficiary when government protects this abstraction we call “the environment.”

But then I caught a lecture that the Times reporter, Eric Lipton, delivered last week on what’s really been driving these rollbacks. It ain’t free-market philosophy or promoting economic growth. Mostly it’s quiet trading of gifts and favors among pro-Trump business interests, administration officials, and various Republican politicos the White House chooses to back, with the truck thing as just one egregious case in point.

“Glider truck” is kind of a charming misnomer for a front portion of a tractor-trailer rig that’s built and sold, initially, without an engine. Later an aftermarket outfit adds a pre-1999 engine, which then propels the truck through a curious loophole in the modern, health-protecting limits on diesel pollution that evolved through the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.

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Each step of the way, a glider truck is considerably cheaper to buy and operate than one that meets the standards. Considerably filthier, too.

This strange-sounding exemption arose from an argument that can be summarized like so: If you crashed your 1998 Peterbilt rig in, say, 2002, and the engine could be salvaged, why shouldn’t you be able to re-use it? After all, the environmental impact would be the same as if there had been no wreck.

The rulemakers thought this made sense, and nobody much objected while the numbers of shiny new trucks with dirty old engines remained small. But then production and sales of gliders began to surge, reaching 1,000 a year by 2010 and swelling to 10,000 in 2015, and the Obama administration sought to tighten and eventually close a loophole stretched far beyond initial expectations.

This clampdown had considerable support, Lipton has written, from manufacturers like Volvo and Navistar, as well as major purchasers like United Parcel Service; also backing it were the National Association of Manufacturers and, of course, the American Lung Association and other clean-air groups.

On the other hand, Lipton told a program for environmental journalists at the University of Colorado, the loophole’s pending demise rankled Tommy Fitzgerald Jr., whose output  from three plants in Tennessee make him the largest supplier of glider trucks in the country.

Fitzgerald met personally with Scott Pruitt, when Pruitt was head of the EPA, to plead his case, and he had support from Tennessee’s Rep. Diane Black, a Republican who was leaving her seat in Congress to run for governor with Trump’s backing. A look at campaign finance records, calendars and emails showed the support was mutual:

Turns out that Fitzgerald had been donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to Diane Black, who had gone to Pruitt and said, you know, Scott, can you take care of this? There’s a campaign contribution limit in Tennessee, but they  figured out a way to evade it by using every possible LLC and all their family members.

With a chuckle, Lipton put up a slide of a document listing suspiciously attributed gifts and said:

When you’re a reporter looking at campaign contributions, and you see something like this, you know you’re onto something good: Peterbilt LLC 1, Peterbilt LLC 2, 3, 4, 5, 6….”

Buying favorable research

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Also, Lipton found, Fitzgerald had financed a study at Tennessee Tech University to compare the pollution from gliders with those from normal new trucks. Remarkably, it concluded that the emissions were the same, “even though it’s hard to imagine how that could even possibly be the case.”

Coincidentally, the EPA’s regional office in Michigan was doing its own study, which found that glider trucks had 43 times the particulate emissions of modern equipment, and much higher output of sulfur and nitrogen compounds. In fact, EPA figures showed that a year’s worth of glider truck sales would contribute 13 times as much nitrogen oxide as all the cars involved in the Volkswagen diesel-testing scandal.

(Not only that, but a salesman at one of the Fitzgerald operations — presumably taking Lipton for a customer — bragged that the glider trucks were exempt from the safety rule that requires tracking of a driver’s time behind the wheel, as well as from the federal excise tax on trucking that funds road construction and repair.)

When word of the study’s findings got out, it embarrassed the school’s president — who had attended NASCAR events with Fitzgerald, and accepted millions in donations for building projects — into withdrawing the research and opening an investigation into academic misconduct.

Nevertheless, Lipton said, Pruitt directed EPA staff to prepare a new rule on glider trucks that “incorporates the latest technical data” — meaning the Tennessee Tech study, not the agency’s own work. And on his last day in office, just before resigning under pressure of ethics investigations, he announced that the EPA would simply stop enforcing a limit holding each manufacturer to 300 gliders per year. (Fitzgerald sold about 3,000 in 2017, Lipton has reported.)

Under court pressure, EPA acting administrator Andrew Wheeler has countermanded that decision, which seemed plainly illegal. But work on revising and extending the loophole, and exempting glider trucks from other emissions standards, continues.

Nothing personal

This would be a good place to point out to any skeptics in the house that Lipton — whose work has been honored with three Pulitzer Prizes — also noted that he has been a Pruitt admirer, and was not an uncritical observer of Trump’s predecessor.

What I’m doing is all about transparency and gameplaying. It’s not personal.

When I first met Pruitt in 2014, when I spent time with him in Oklahoma, I was actually really impressed with the guy and how well he understood federal environmental regulations, and he could talk about them very eloquently and he had a level of understanding that was quite surprising for a state attorney general. I respected that he had a different view of government.

There was gameplaying going on in the Obama administration, too, with environmental groups at times literally conspiring with the administration to get certain rules passed, and I wrote about that. For example, the “waters of the U.S. rule.” The Sierra Club was working with EPA to try to influence public opinion to build support for the rule, which has been very controversial; it expands EPA jurisdiction over surface waters. And EPA had aligned itself with this social-media effort to get more people to comment in favor of the rule. I wrote a story about that, and it generated an investigation by the Government Accountability Office that concluded there had been a “covert propaganda” effort by the Obama EPA.

That kind of PR effort isn’t honorable, to be sure. But is it on par with the rollback on glider truck pollution? Lipton didn’t address that point, and nobody in the lecture hall asked him to, but I’ll just go ahead and say I can’t see reasonable equivalence there. I’ll also say it was kind of moving to hear him speak of Pruitt’s ethical meltdown and shameful departure after Trump, with an eye to midterm elections, finally yielded to pressure and dumped his loyal functionary.

Other exemplary rollbacks

The glider truck story wasn’t Lipton’s only example of industry-influenced policy rollbacks, and Pruitt wasn’t the only notable dismantler:

  • Nancy Beck left the American Chemistry Council to run the EPA division that regulates the council members’ products, having obtained a waiver from rule that usually requires a two-year pause when the conflict of interests is so large and evident. Even before the waiver was in place, Lipton said, “she went in and started to rewrite the risk evaluation and prioritization rules that EPA was adopting to decide how it would evaluate the most toxic chemicals in the United States.”

She was literally taking the documents from the guy — it happened to be a man, and I know who he was — whose job was to oversee the rule-writing, and she took the pen from him and rewrote the rule herself, and it directly reflected the comments she’d submitted on behalf of the council  just months earlier.

  • Bill Wehrum, a top lawyer/lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry who now heads another EPA division dealing with air quality, has pursued an agenda of regulatory rollbacks that just happen to match a PowerPoint presentation he had given at a meeting of U.S. petrochemical executives, listing their repeal priorities.
  • Scott Angelle, formerly a Sunoco executive and lobbyist pressing for more lenient rules on offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, now runs the Interior Department bureau that applies those regulations — and in the last few weeks has rolled back a suite of new rules adopted in response to the 2010 blowout at BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig. Pressing hardest for the repeals, Lipton found, were companies drilling in the shallower zones of the continental shelf:

Most of them are these rusty [rigs] owned by companies that are barely holding on financially, really low-producing, and they’re in really bad shape. And what I found in the data I collected from the Interior Department was that these companies had the worst safety records and the worst conditions at the platforms…. The Exxons and Shells and Chevrons had basically written the cost of the rules into their bottom lines, and they were ready to comply with them.

Earlier on, it was possible for some journalists, including me, to see much of the Trump White House’s anti-environment agenda as empty or clumsy gestures that would fade away or fail court review, but Lipton feels that outlook is changing as the Pruitts are replaced by more skillful Wehrums, Angelles and Wheelers:

The bottom line is, [Wheeler] has the same regulatory philosophy that Pruitt had, and the regulated industries still have incredible influence inside the agency … all the repeals are still moving ahead, but he’s doing it more rigorously, and they’re more methodical. Bill Wehrum is also a really smart guy, and fewer of their repeals are going to be thrown out by the courts, because they’re doing things in a much smarter way.

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Lipton’s full lecture can be viewed here without charge; I’ll just note that his delivery is conversational and casual, laced with a lot of ums and you-knows and fumbles that I’ve eliminated here. I found the informality engaging and refreshing, but your mileage may vary. Though I can’t see how it matters, I’ll err on the side of disclosure and note that I was a Scripps Fellow in 2001-2002 at the Center for Environmental Journalism, which sponsored Lipton’s talk in honor of Len Ackland, the fellowship program’s founder and a mentor of mine.