EPA official faces conflict of interest claim by Democrats


A Democratic-leaning group demands an EPA official recuse herself from the agency’s oversight of methane gas because her family in Texas owns land where an Enbridge natural gas pipeline crosses.

Anne Idsal runs the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. Valley Crossing Pipeline LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Enbridge, operates a 168-mile natural gas line that crosses over 16,100 feet of Idsal’s family land in the southern tip of Texas, reported Bloomberg Law.

Idsal, who started at the EPA in late 2017, was compensated by the pipeline company for use of the land, according to an EPA spokeswoman. Idsal has recused herself from any issues that concern Valley Crossing, but not Enbridge.

The spokeswoman said Idsal received a one-time payment for the pipeline, made before she started working at the EPA. She didn’t respond to questions about how much Idsal was paid, or when specifically the payment was made. She did say that Idsal had consulted with EPA ethics officials and was told she only had to recuse from Valley Crossing.

Idsal declined requests to be interviewed.

Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said Idsal’s recusals struck her as incomplete.

“It seems to me that yes, her recusal should cover the parent,” Canter said, referring to Enbridge. “The financial interests of a wholly-owned subsidiary are normally imputed to the parent.”

Chris Saeger, director of strategic initiatives at Accountable.US, a watchdog group whose board has extensive connections with the Democratic Party, went a step further, saying Idsal’s alleged conflicts should have disqualified her for her position.

“She should not only recuse herself from all EPA rulemakings, but the administration never should have picked her for this job in the first place,” he said.

Idsal replaced Bill Wehrum as the EPA’s top air official. Wehrum left the agency last June amid a probe into his former law firm’s work on behalf of electric utilities fighting Obama-era air regulations.

Her leadership comes as the EPA is considering a new rule (RIN 2060-AT90) that would exempt oil and gas transmission and storage facilities from eliminating leaks of methane and other ozone-forming compounds. It would also turn back methane emission limits at oil and gas well sites nationwide. The EPA says existing Obama-era rules are unnecessary and duplicative, and wants to finalize the methane rule by the end of July.

Methane is a powerful heat-trapping gas, many times more potent than carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change.

Enbridge is a member of the American Gas Association, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, and the Texas Pipeline Association, which have submitted comments on the rule.

Federal regulations direct employees to ask for agency guidance if the employee “knows that a particular matter involving specific parties is likely to have a direct and predictable effect on the financial interest of a member of his household,” and that the circumstances would cause a reasonable person to question the employee’s impartiality in the matter.

Michael Barnes, an Enbridge spokesman, confirmed that the Valley Crossing Pipeline crosses a segment of the Idsal Ranch in Kenedy County, Texas. Valley Crossing negotiated an easement with the corporate entity that owns the Idsal Ranch in 2017, working through the ranch’s legal counsel, Barnes said.

Barnes said Enbridge “engaged in hundreds of voluntary negotiations with landowners” along the project route for the Valley Crossing Pipeline, which went into service in 2018. The company “routinely negotiates with landowners to acquire right-of-way easements along a project route,” he said.

One-time payments for the use of an individual’s land are “very common” in Texas, said Haley Emerson, a spokeswoman for the Texas Oil and Gas Association.

Kedric Payne, former deputy chief counsel at the Office of Congressional Ethics during the Obama administration, said each recusal decision is fact-specific, and that there’s no blanket ethics rule stating that a conflict with a subsidiary automatically implies a conflict with the parent company.

“It’s not a violation on its face, but recusal may be prudent to avoid the appearance of a conflict,” said Payne, now general counsel and senior director of ethics at the Campaign Legal Center.

Kevin Minoli, a former EPA general counsel during the Trump administration, said Idsal may not have included Enbridge because the value of the interest she has in the easement with Valley Crossing Pipeline is “likely fixed and not significant enough, such that any decision Ms. Idsal participates in regarding the parent company would directly and predictably affect the interest she holds.”

Minoli, now an environmental attorney with Alston & Bird LLP, also said he wasn’t surprised that Idsal hasn’t recused herself from all regulations where pipelines are one of a larger group of regulated facilities.

“The statutory prohibition would only apply if it is a particular matter, and a rulemaking of broad application is not a particular matter,” he said.

But Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, demanded a higher standard. In his view, even if Idsal’s failure to recuse herself from Enbridge “technically does not violate the black letter law, and that’s for ethics lawyers to decide, it certainly violates the spirit of the ethics laws,” he said.

Source: Bloomberg Law