EPA Caught Breaking Lobbying Law with ‘Covert Propaganda’

Published January 20, 2016

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has determined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) broke federal law on multiple occasions, using what GAO termed “covert propaganda,” in support of a powerful, controversial regulation expanding EPA’s power over isolated bodies of water and temporary, ephemeral wetlands and streams.

Numerous businesses and trade groups, farmers and agricultural interests, local, state, and federal legislators, and public officials have objected to the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, challenging its legality in court and alleging the rule is a massive power grab by the federal government.

The Sixth Circuit Court of appeals issued a nationwide stay on the rule in early October.

Multiple Violations

An examination by GAO found a pair of EPA social media campaigns in support of the WOTUS rule broke laws prohibiting federal agencies from promoting or lobbying for their own actions.

In particular, GAO faulted EPA for using Thunderclap, a social media amplification tool, to recruit hundreds of Twitter users to tweet in support of the rule. It also said EPA broke the law with a blog post linking to two environmental groups’ pages urging readers to contact members of Congress to oppose legislation blocking WOTUS.

“We conclude that EPA’s use of Thunderclap constituted covert propaganda, in violation of the publicity or propaganda prohibition,” GAO found.

“We also conclude that EPA hyperlinks to the [Natural Resources Defense Council] and Surfrider Foundation webpages provided in the EPA blog post constitute grassroots lobbying, in violation of the grassroots lobbying prohibition,” said GAO.

EPA also violated legal prohibitions on spending government resources not already appropriated, the GAO found.

No Surprise

Kathleen Hartnett White, director of the Armstrong Center for Energy and the Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, says she isn’t surprised by GAO’s findings because she had several conflicts with EPA when she served as chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“The GAO’s determination EPA’s social media campaign to marshal support for the WOTUS rule violated federal law prohibiting agency lobbying is a welcome revelation, but it is hardly the first incidence of EPA’s wanton activism.” said White. “Under the Obama administration, EPA’s unprecedented regulatory initiatives are driven by pure propaganda, [not] sound science nor law.

“GAO would be wise to pursue other blatant examples of EPA’s deception of the American people,” White said.

WOTUS in Congress’ Crosshairs

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who had requested the GAO investigation, said its findings vindicated the efforts of those who cried foul over the Obama administration’s aggressive multimedia efforts to build support for the water rule.

“GAO’s finding confirms what I have long suspected, that EPA will go to extreme lengths and even violate the law to promote its activist environmental agenda,” Inhofe said in a statement. “EPA’s illegal attempts to manufacture public support for its Waters of the United States rule and sway congressional opinion regarding legislation to address that rule have undermined the integrity of the rulemaking process and demonstrated how baseless this unprecedented expansion of EPA regulatory authority really is.”

Despite GAO’s findings, Congress failed to defund the rule in the national budget, passed in December 2015. 

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.


Government Accountability Office, “Environmental Protection Agency Application of Publicity or Propaganda and Anti-Lobbying Provisions,” December 14, 2015: https://www.heartland.org/policy-documents/gao-report-illegal-epa-wotus-lobbying-efforts