Arizona Conference Gave Industry ‘Unprecedented’ Access to Top EPA Officials

Industry groups gained unusual access to two top EPA officials, including Henry Darwin, the agency’s second in command, during a conference in Prescott in August. Above, Darwin at the Arizona Manufacturing Summit in Phoenix in 2016.
Industry groups gained unusual access to two top EPA officials, including Henry Darwin, the agency’s second in command, during a conference in Prescott in August. Above, Darwin at the Arizona Manufacturing Summit in Phoenix in 2016. Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Industry and manufacturing groups in Arizona gained unusual access to two top Environmental Protection Agency officials, including the federal agency’s second in command, during an August conference in Prescott.

Henry Darwin, the EPA’s acting deputy director and a former director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, was a keynote speaker at the Environmental and Sustainability Summit, an annual gathering organized by the Arizona Manufacturers Council. Another keynote speaker was Mike Stoker, the EPA’s administrator for Region 9, which includes Arizona, California and Nevada. Alexis Strauss, a senior policy adviser and former acting regional administrator, attended too.

The conference took place August 20 and 21 in Prescott, a city in central Arizona about two hours north of Phoenix. There, attendees could meet and speak directly with the EPA administrators, according to an informal news item written by the law firm Snell and Wilmer, one of the conference’s major, longtime sponsors and co-organizers.

"It is a rare occasion, and an unprecedented one for ESS, to be able to attend a local event and have the opportunity to meet and discuss issues directly and in person with" EPA administrators, Snell and Wilmer's report said.

About 120 business leaders, policymakers, and environmental and sustainability experts showed up for the conference, said Garrick Taylor, a spokesperson for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a pro-business group under which the Manufacturers Council is housed. The summit is an annual one, and attendees often are consultants, engineers, and attorneys hailing from manufacturing, mining, agriculture, and other industries. Taylor said he was not able to provide a detailed list of attendees or their affiliations.

“Each year attendees explore how businesses interact with environmental policy and regulators, and discuss the ways in which the policies help or hurt business in the state,” Taylor said.

The Arizona Manufacturers Council’s mission is to “promote and enhance a positive business climate for manufacturing and related industries” operating in Arizona. Among its guiding principles are “creating a cost-effective and predictable regulatory environment that facilitates business operations and keeps compliance costs manageable.”

The roster of speakers on the agenda reads like a who’s who of Arizona industries and the government bodies charged with regulating them. Arizona Public Service, Salt River Project, and Tucson Electric Power were there. So were Andy Tobin and Justin Olson, who sit on the powerful Corporation Commission and vote on rates for water, electricity, and other utilities. Jay Skardon, Arizona’s assistant attorney general; Tom Buschatzke, the director of Arizona’s Department of Water Resources; and Timothy Franquist, the air quality director at ADEQ, also spoke.

The past few years have witnessed a shift at both the state and federal levels in how the relationship between regulator and regulated is explicitly defined. In many ways, August's conference exemplifies this evolution and approach in Arizona.

click to enlarge EPA administrator Mike Stoker, right, gave out his cellphone number to attendees at a manufacturing conference in August. - EPA/TWITTER
EPA administrator Mike Stoker, right, gave out his cellphone number to attendees at a manufacturing conference in August.
Since taking office in 2015, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has pledged to streamline government through a so-called Lean initiative, a.k.a. the Arizona Management System, a business-oriented approach that calls companies and people who use government services “customers.” One of its central tenets is “understanding what the customer values.”

Ducey’s administration touts these efforts to revamp government as being less wasteful, but it’s hard to miss the various implications of the mere use of the word “customer” — especially the abandonment of the idea of government as watchdog or protector of the public.

Meanwhile, under the administration of President Donald Trump, ties between environmental regulator and regulated industries have grown cozier. Scott Pruitt, Trump’s first appointee as the head of EPA, met with industry representatives 25 times more than environmentalists during his first seven months in office, a watchdog group found. Dogged by one ethical scandal after another, Pruitt resigned in July.

In September, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told a roomful of oil and gas industry representatives, “Our government should work for you.” In March, he said at an energy industry conference that the U.S. Department of Interior “should be in the business of being a partner.”

The Arizona Manufacturers Council invited Stoker to the Prescott conference via email, said Strauss, who served as acting regional administrator before Stoker. Stoker was not paid to speak, and the EPA covered transportation and accommodation costs, she told Phoenix New Times.

It’s not clear how many times, if ever, top EPA officials have attended this particular summit in central Arizona. “I don’t think I was invited last year,” Strauss said. Her predecessor, Jared Blumenfeld, might have been invited, but she wasn’t sure.

Taylor, of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber’s records of the summit go back to 2008, and that since then, only one EPA official had participated in the Environmental and Sustainability Summit — Colleen McKaughan in 2016, when she was the associate director of Region 9 and gave a keynote speech on federal air quality.

There are no publicly available recordings of the EPA officials' speeches from the August event, but secondhand reports depict speakers who were vocal about streamlining the agency and building closer ties with the people and the businesses — should we say "customers"? — it regulates.

Darwin, the EPA's acting deputy director, talked about operational efficiency at the agency, and Stoker “discussed his desire to ensure environmental quality” in his region, Taylor said. According to the write-up by Snell and Wilmer, Stoker and Darwin spoke about themselves only briefly before turning to the audience and asking questions like, “What do you need and want from us?” The law firm declined to answer specific questions about Stoker and Darwin's presence at the conference.

When Darwin led the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality in 2012, he oversaw a state lawsuit filed against the EPA regarding restrictions that the federal agency had proposed on coal emissions.

In August, Darwin told conference attendees, “I’m a huge believer in the power of the ‘and,’” Chamber Business News reported. “We can both improve our economic abilities, grow our economy, and at the same time protect the environment,” he said.
Stoker’s email and cellphone number were also displayed on one of the presentation slides, according to event materials posted online.

“I don’t know that it was displayed prominently, but he gave it out, and he always does that,” said Strauss, who was in the room for Stoker’s presentation. His talk focused on his priorities, including the Mexican border, tribes, and Superfund cleanup sites. “Is it typical for EPA administrators to give out their cellphone numbers? I don’t know, but it’s very much his style of wanting people to be in touch.”

Stoker did not respond to a voicemail left at that cellphone number. He later replied to emailed questions from New Times with, "I understand my staff got back in touch with you."

Before joining the EPA in May, Stoker worked for UnitedAg, an agricultural industry group in California, as the director of government affairs. He’s also been a spokesperson for Greka Energy, a company that was sued by the EPA in 2011 for violating the Clean Water Act.

(UPDATE: This story has been updated to include Michael Stoker's response.)
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.