In June 2012, Chesapeake Energy Corp. led more than a dozen U.S. EPA officials on a tour of its hydraulic fracturing operations near Sayre, Pa.
Fracking, and how the federal government regulates it, is of great concern to Chesapeake. The energy company spent $1.8 million on lobbying that year -- including lobbying EPA on its hydraulic fracturing study looking into potential impacts on drinking water, according to disclosure records on file with the Senate.
The Chesapeake excursion is among thousands of trips that EPA officials -- including top brass -- have taken on someone else's dime since 2010, according to trip reports obtained by Greenwire. Overall, EPA has accepted more than $4.5 million to pay for hotels, meals, travel and other benefits from outside groups over the past four years.
Corporations, industry associations, nonprofits, foreign governments and others with a stake in EPA's rules -- including groups with registered lobbyists -- regularly pay for EPA official travel, according to reports the agency has filed with the Office of Government Ethics. EPA has reported accepting 3,369 trips that have had some if not all private funding for employees to take tours, attend conferences and meetings, conduct training sessions, and update outsiders on the agency's research and policies since 2010.
In the Chesapeake case, about 13 EPA officials went on the tour of fracking sites to learn more about the process, according to an agency official. The company provided transportation from a central office in Sayre out to nearby well sites. That was noted as "local transportation" on the trip reports with Chesapeake spending $1,250 overall to ferry the officials to the sites.
"None of the travelers would have had an issue pending before them that involved Chesapeake Energy," an EPA official said. "These are more the rulemaking folks, and they need to see what fracking is other than watching it on TV."
One of Chesapeake's entourage of EPA officials included Mark Seltzer, who's based in the agency's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics. He's also listed on a government website as a point man for EPA's efforts to get companies to publicly disclose their fracking chemicals.
A Chesapeake spokesman declined to comment for this article.
But the energy company is not alone in funding EPA travel. Dozens of other interests with business before EPA are financing officials' trips.
For example, in January 2012, the Boston-based energy management network Altenex paid $800 for meals and transportation for Blaine Collison, then-director of EPA's Green Power Partnership.
Collison was invited to a meeting in Midland, Mich., to share his expertise at a meeting of large corporate energy users looking to procure renewable power, according to EPA's report. Two years later, he was hired by the company. He's now Altenex's managing director of network services.
Dow Chemical Co. -- which co-sponsored the event with Altenex -- paid $128 for Collison's meals and lodging.
Dow was lobbying EPA that year on a host of issues, including the agency's regulation of dioxin and the pesticide methyl bromide. It was also lobbying Congress on legislation that would have affected EPA's regulation of chemicals. A Dow spokeswoman declined to comment for this story.
The trips reported were all cleared by ethics officials, and EPA says they're all allowable under government rules for accepting gifts.
But the fact that agency employees are having their flights, meals and hotels comped by outside groups is troubling to some who say it might influence their work at one of the government's most influential regulatory agencies.
"My concern is the conflict of interest at stake," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at the watchdog group Public Citizen. "Gifts of travel are usually provided by entities that want to lobby someone, lobby a government official and get some official favors in turn."
EPA and other proponents of the trips say they're a useful -- and legal -- way to get agency workers outside their cubicles to learn about the issues they work on and educate the public.
There's a governmentwide regulation that allows EPA to accept travel expenses from nonfederal sources, as long as the travelers don't have certain matters before them -- like grants under consideration or pending litigation -- that involve the same donors, according to EPA. The agency's Office of General Counsel vets proposed trips to ensure that they don't pose conflicts of interest for the travelers.
An EPA official said the outside funding helps an agency that's seen its travel budget pinched in recent years.
"We're careful to make sure that we're not doing it for visiting a site to do an investigation or an inspection, but where we have an opportunity to learn something, and a regulated entity or the university or the trade association or government says, 'Yeah, we have something that we want you to see because we don't think that you can understand our perspective unless you see our stuff,'" the official said.
As for Collison, the EPA official said the hire didn't present a problem, noting that two years had passed between the trip and the job offer. "What would be a problem -- which is not what happened here -- is if he were simultaneously negotiating for employment with Altenex while doing a trip, which was paid for by them. That would be a problem."
Collison did not respond to requests for comment.
Some of EPA's top officials have also had trips, meals and other travel expenses funded by outsiders.
In December 2010, then-EPA air chief Gina McCarthy, Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe and several other top officials attended a conference in Boston sponsored by the Harvard University Center for the Environment to commemorate EPA's 40th anniversary. They were given meals costing $98.91 each, records show. Harvard University has registered lobbyists -- which is pointed out in one of the trip reports.
"Harvard University Center for the Environment is a registered lobbyist. They are not paying any travel expenses," the form says. Because those officials were political appointees who signed President Obama's ethics pledge, they're normally barred from accepting gifts from federally registered lobbyists.
In 2010, Harvard had lobbied both chambers of Congress on a host of issues, including sweeping climate and energy legislation that had passed the House and ultimately died in the Senate. That effort was supported by the Obama administration and would have had major implications for EPA, which would have issued new rules to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
The meals were considered an exception to the Obama administration's ban on political appointees accepting gifts from lobbyists, according to EPA, because another statute was in play that allows for a governmentwide authority to accept some travel funding.
"There's no lobbying gift pledge violation," according to the EPA official.
Awards and ceremonies
Companies would often pay for EPA officials' travel as part of photo opportunities and celebrations of their own environmental bona fides.
Disney paid for EPA's Julie Anderson to attend an awards ceremony at an Earth Day event in Anaheim, Calif., in 2011. EPA was the co-sponsor of the award that Anderson was presenting. Disney paid for one night's lodging and admission to the theme park, according to EPA's trip report.
Earth Day sparked other trips for agency officials.
In 2013, Beverly Banister of EPA went to Tupelo, Miss., to help turn on a Toyota plant's solar power array and present an award to the plant's president, Masa Hamaguchi, as part of Earth Day celebrations, according to the agency's trip report.
"We'd like for the EPA to present Hamaguchi-san with the award and say words about the award and its significance," the report says.
Toyota Motor Manufacturing of Mississippi paid for Banister's meals, lodging, rental car gas as well as common carrier and local transportation with $628.72.
Toyota spokeswoman Julie Hamp said the company "continually seeks to improve environmental activities in its manufacturing operations" and that the Earth Day event was part of that effort. "An exchange of information and ideas with environmental experts like the EPA is important to our efforts," she said.
'Purely for compliance assistance'
Corporations have also been seeking guidance from EPA in order not to run afoul of the agency.
In 2011, Greg Schaner in EPA's stormwater office took a trip that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. helped fund.
It was for the company's annual "compliance conference" held in Bentonville, Ark., according to Brooke Buchanan, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman. The conference has various regulatory officials meet with the retail giant's suppliers and contractors to teach them best practices to ensure compliance with the law.
"Who better than EPA and other agencies to walk them through the process?" Buchanan asked.
The EPA official said "it was an assemblage of people where we could give the agency's perspective on rules" and how stormwater rules apply to them as a regulated entity.
Trade associations also sought direction from EPA.
In 2011, EPA official Sam Sampath traveled to Orlando, Fla., "to present the EPA draft pesticide permit" to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA). The association paid $537.40 to help cover Sampath's lodging and travel.
Chava McKeel, GCSAA's director of government relations, said the EPA official came to the group's meeting to help its members better understand the agency's new Clean Water Act pesticide general permit.
"I host a public policy program every year at our annual conference and try to identify speakers on important and timely compliance topics," McKeel said. "This was purely for compliance assistance."
Join EPA, see the world
As part of that compliance assistance, EPA officials have traveled the globe, often with their meals and local transportation paid for by private parties.
Senior air officials went to Tokyo and all over Germany to discuss regulations and technology with global automakers.
Margo Oge, then-director of EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality (OTAQ), went to Japan on a trip in 2011 that auto companies helped fund.
Oge, who's now retired, traveled to Tokyo for a technology review and meetings with representatives of the Japanese government and Japanese automakers Honda Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co., according to the records. Each of the three auto companies reportedly paid $210 for her meals and local transportation. Several other EPA air officials also went on the trip to Japan and had meals and local transport funded by the automakers.
Last year, OTAQ Director Christopher Grundler, Assessment and Standards Division Director William Charmley and several other EPA officials traveled to Germany, visiting Stuttgart, Hanover and Munich to discuss with automakers the agency's light-duty greenhouse gas rules.
BMW AG, Continental AG, Daimler AG, Porsche and Volkswagen Group helped pay for their meals and local transportation while in Germany.
EPA officials have seen the world, thanks to privately funded travel. Trip reports show that agency employees have gone to far-flung states like Alaska and Hawaii; major cities such as Las Vegas, London and Paris; and to faraway countries, including Chile, China, Italy, Spain and South Korea.
Sometimes employees' trips do run afoul of government ethics regulations.
An EPA inspector general's report released last week disclosed that one political appointee accepted a private jet flight from a lobbyist in violation of ethics rules. The official was asked to review counseling advice but no further action was taken, according to the watchdog's office (Greenwire, May 13).
But although EPA says the vast majority of its trips funded by outsiders are within the rules, some watchdog groups say it doesn't look good.
If companies or associations with a vested interest in a specific agency can pay for government officials' travel and hotel expenses, "are we placing public servants in a position in which they're going to be more protective or lenient on the industries that they're overseeing?" asked Scott Amey, general counsel of the Project on Government Oversight.
"We need an arms-length relationship from people that are either regulated by or doing business with the federal government," he said.
Click here to see EPA's trip reports shared with the Office of Government Ethics.
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