Dec 15, 2015 - 2:15pm

EPA’s ‘Covert Propaganda’ Campaign to Sell Its Water Rule Explained

Senior Editor, Digital Content

Covert propaganda” is something you’d expect from a foreign spy agency not from EPA. Yet that’s what the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded in a report on the agency’s efforts to sell its water rule-- Waters of the United States (WOTUS), The New York Times reports:

Federal agencies are allowed to promote their own policies, but are not allowed to engage in propaganda, defined as covert activity intended to influence the American public. They also are not allowed to use federal resources to conduct so-called grass-roots lobbying — urging the American public to contact Congress to take a certain kind of action on pending legislation.

As it promoted the Waters of the United States rule, also known as the Clean Water Rule, the E.P.A. violated both of those prohibitions, a 26-page legal opinion signed by Susan A. Poling, the general counsel to the G.A.O., concluded in an investigation requested by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

“E.P.A. appealed to the public to contact Congress in opposition to pending legislation in violation of the grass-roots lobbying prohibition,” the report says.

The story came on the radar earlier this year when EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy bragged to a Senate Committee about the outpouring of public support for its (then) proposed water rule:

We have received over 1 million comments and 87.1 percent of those comments we have counted so far… are supportive of this rule.

As I wrote in May, The New York Times told us how that outpouring of support came about; EPA drummed it up.

Led by Tom Reynolds, the agency’s top communications adviser, EPA fired up its propaganda machine to counter critics of WOTUS—farmersranchers, home builders, the golf industry, and other businesses--who pointed out how the rule will empower federal bureaucrats to regulate “wetlands, intermittent streams, ephemeral steams (those that only flow after a rainfall or snowmelt) , and man-made bodies of water like ditches, ponds, and canals,” federalize local land use decisions, and make it even harder to build things in America.

One cog in that machine was social media. In September 2014, the agency used social media tool Thunderclap to push pro-WOTUS messages on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

EPA’s Thunderclap campaign said, “Clean water is important to me. I support EPA's efforts to protect it for my health, my family, and my community,” and included a link to an EPA webpage (now unavailable) that directed the public to submit comments on the draft regulation. The effort reached 1.8 million people.

GAO determined that EPA’s use of Thunderclap was a “covert propaganda” campaign and broke the law. EPA pushed pro-WOTUS messages without properly disclosing that the agency was the author of the messages:

While EPA’s role was transparent to supporters who joined the campaign, this does not constitute disclosure to the 1.8 million people potentially reached by the Thunderclap. To those people, it appeared that their friend independently shared a message of his or her support for EPA and clean water.

In addition, the Thunderclap campaign appears to have violated the spirit of internal EPA policy. A 2010 memo on indirect lobbying from EPA’s general counsel states:

EPA employees may not explicitly or implicitly encourage the public to contact Congress in support of, or opposition to, a legislative proposal, nor explicitly encourage the public to contact state or local governments for that purpose.

EPA's Thunderclap campaign asked the public to leave comments in support of WOTUS, which EPA Administrator McCarthy then referenced in testimony before Congress to claim overwhelming public support for the controversial rule. 

Not only was EPA caught producing propaganda, GAO also found the agency engaged in inappropriate grassroots lobbying of Congress, The Times reports:

The agency is also said to have violated the anti-lobbying law when one of its public affairs officers, Travis Loop, wrote a blog post saying he was a surfer and did not “want to get sick from pollution.” That post included a link button to an advocacy group that discussed the danger that polluted water posed to surfers and, at least at one point, also included text that said “Take Action,” telling the public to “tell Congress to stop interfering with your right to clean water.”

It’s bad enough that EPA is engaging in such unprecedented regulatory overreach by crafting WOTUS, but its aggressive (and illegal) advocacy of it shows how out-of-control that agency is.

As for Tom Reynolds, who spearheaded EPA’s illegal WOTUS communications efforts, he got a promotion and is now working on climate issues in the White House.

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About the Author

About the Author

Sean Hackbarth
Senior Editor, Digital Content

Sean writes about public policies affecting businesses including energy, health care, and regulations. When not battling those making it harder for free enterprise to succeed, he raves about all things Wisconsin (his home state) and religiously follows the Green Bay Packers.