This month when U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt indicated the EPA was looking to Toyota to help it streamline its management practices, a strong backlash was immediately voiced by environmental and consumer advocacies.

Advocates have been bearing down since February on the Trump administration appointee for an agenda they say includes blurring the lines between the regulatory agency and industries it is charged to regulate, and Pruitt’s words sounded like more of the same.

“We are actually partnering with Toyota to begin a lean process at the agency to evaluate management practices,” Pruitt said at the first of two hearings before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on the morning of Dec. 7 in response to Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.). “The agency for many years ― and this is something I found surprising ― has not measured outcomes consistently.”

The statement was an answer to Shimkus’ question how the EPA measured its workload and determined how many people were necessary to meet its goals.

In follow-up, Toyota has said it has not actually partnered with the federal agency, but a non-profit division of the Texas-based U.S. arm of the Japanese automaker is in talks with the EPA, and is considering going forward. Without further elaboration, an EPA representative also confirmed discussions over Toyota’s potential consultancy of the federal agency.

“EPA, in conjunction with other federal agencies, is working to deploy lean management practices that eliminate waste and deliver measurable results,” an EPA spokeswoman told HuffPost.

Advocates, sensitive to a man they do not trust, were prompted by former Oklahoma Attorney General Pruitt’s statement that the EPA is “actually partnering with Toyota.” Alarmed, they interpret his words as coming from one who was a known critic of the former EPA, has sued the agency in the past, and now commissioned, they say, to “gut” the EPA’s effectiveness.

Decrying a “conflict of interest,” Consumers’ Union’s David Friedman, director of cars and product policy and analysis used a familiar agrarian metaphor to warn of his concerns.

“Having a company that is regulated by the agency serve as a consultant to reform management practices presents a serious conflict of interest,” Friedman said. “This is like having the fox as your consultant for how to manage your hen house.”

Similarly, the Union of Concerned Scientists Don Anair told the Huffington Post that to have a regulated private company consult for a federal regulatory agency would be “unprecedented.”

Perhaps strongest have been statements issued by Washington-based Environmental Working Group (EWG). In a letter sent Dec. 14 to James Lentz, CEO of Toyota North America, EWG President Ken Cook wrote that helping Pruitt “manage EPA into the ground” would betray the ideals of quality, effectiveness and efficiency represented by the vaunted “Toyota Way” and the company’s reputation for and commitment to environmental responsibility.

“Mr. Lentz, if you were managing Toyota the way Scott Pruitt is managing the EPA, your annual ‘Toyotathon’ would be featuring showrooms stocked with Edsels and Studebakers, not the fleet of advanced, pioneering, energy-efficient models that for decades have strongly appealed to environmentally conscious American buyers,” Cook wrote.

“We urge you to immediately and unambiguously announce Toyota’s rejection of any management partnership with EPA and Administrator Scott Pruitt,” the letter said. “To do otherwise risks irreparable harm to Toyota’s brand and reputation in the American marketplace.”

Pruitt is the Focus

The Natural Resources Defense Council has also written much about “the disgrace of Scott Pruitt” and the “Trump EPA.”

In attempting to warn and in cases shame Toyota away from dealing with the EPA, advocates are most concerned with Pruitt.

“Nothing in Mr. Pruitt’s actions or public statements to date as head of the EPA, or in his prior role as Oklahoma’s attorney general, suggests that he comes to issues of EPA’s performance, management and effectiveness with an impartial interest in improving the agency through any management techniques,” Cook wrote. “To the contrary, Mr. Pruitt already has an overarching objective for the EPA: to destroy its ability to achieve its mission.”

Pruitt is widely criticized by numerous advocates as the appointee of President Donald Trump, who has prompted international outrage for pulling the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The EPA administrator is reported as making the EPA “cozy” with others in private industry it is otherwise in charge of regulating. A report by The New York Times prompted the EWG to write Pruitt is turning the EPA into the “KGB” and deliberately obfuscating his motives.

As noted by the EWG, New York Times reporters Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton documented:

• Current EPA employees, when summoned to meetings with Administrator Pruitt, staff must “have an escort to gain entrance” to his office, are “told to leave behind their cellphones” and “are sometimes told not to take notes.”
• Wherever he goes, “even at EPA headquarters,” Pruitt is “accompanied by armed guards, the first head of the agency to ever request round-the-clock security.”
• In an apparent effort to block any trail of communications with industry officials that could be captured in a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request, Pruitt “often makes important phone calls from other offices rather than use the phone in his office.”

In follow-up, Alex Formuzis, EWG’s senior VP, Communications & Strategic Campaigns, listed other concerns for why Toyota should lend no support to the EPA, as Pruitt is suspect on a number of counts. “Not necessarily in order of outrage,” Formuzis observed Pruitt has:

• Decided to vacate the expected ban of the highly toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos, which has shown to cause harm to children’s brains at even low levels of exposure.
• Decided to repeal the Clean Power Plan
• Significantly watered down the EPA’s work to restrict and ban some of the most toxic chemicals, including TCE, methylene chloride and asbestos.
• Led a successful advocacy effort that pushed Trump to walk away from the Paris Climate agreement.
• Removed whole sections of the EPA’s website that deal with climate change.
• Used taxpayer funds to purchase a private phone booth, hire an opposition research firm to go after the press and others.

Toyota’s Response

Solar panels at Toyota’s new U.S. headquarters in Plano, Texas.

Despite the alarm being raised, Toyota’s Scott Vazin, group vice president and chief communications officer said things are being taken out of proportion.

“At this point, nothing’s been decided. We’ve had some preliminary discussions, there’s no firm plan to move forward,” Vazin said. “We’d be happy to jump in, we’ve certainly supported past activities with the government. We had a project with HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development]; we did a project with the State of New York, so it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary.

Vazin added that there was no conflict of interest that Toyota at this stage could see, as the discussions are about saving taxpayer money, and helping with government efficiency.

Pruitt’s initiative has to do with streamlining operations, not allowing Toyota any way to shape policy or otherwise receive benefits, Vazin said.

The discussion this month came also against the backdrop of the sense that EPA management procedures do need to improve. Its Office of Inspector General in Sept. 2011 had issued a report saying the EPA had not conducted a comprehensive analysis of its workload for 20 years, and so the need is there.

Vazin said despite appearances to some, it needed to be seen that there would be a line of separation between the regulator and regulated, and intentions are benign, even potentially in the best interest of Americans.

“But to be clear this project has been about focusing on management efficiency. I think there’s been some confusion out there,” said Vazin. “This is not about anything relating to regulations, so it’s really about management process and efficiencies; helping the EPA become a more efficient entity which ultimately helps all of Americans in terms of having a government entity that is lean and mean and efficient.”

But advocates have said Toyota should still not lend help as it would be a case of the regulated helping regulators, a strict no-no in their view no matter how it gets spun.

As have others, Consumers Union observed Toyota has lobbied along with most other major automakers to weaken EPA emission rules for 2022-2025. Earlier this year, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Global Automakers, called on Pruitt to weaken vehicle greenhouse gas and fuel economy protections on Feb. 21.

To the statement Toyota has lobbied against Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations, Vazin disagreed.

“That’s wholly inaccurate. We’re not lobbying the EPA to reduce anything,” he said of the current undertaking. “This project, if it were to go forward, is purely about management efficiencies. To make a leap and say that it has any link whatsoever is frankly wholly inaccurate. This is about management efficiencies. You’re not talking about regulations.”

What’s more, Vazin observed, this is not a discussion by Toyota Motor North America, but rather its non-profit arm. To date, reports by the Huffington Post, and press releases by the EWG and Consumers Union have cast aspersions on Toyota as a whole, but Vazin said the entity talking to the EPA is Toyota System Production Support Center (TSSC).

This organization was founded in 1992 and offers its services free of charge to non-governmental organizations including hospitals, food banks, etc., as well as governmental agencies. Should it make an agreement with the EPA, the TSSC would not be compensated for the service to the federal agency.

“This is free of charge. We wouldn’t make any money for this,” said Vazin. “We’ve offered this service to non-profits, NGOs for 25 years.”

The TSSC is indeed an arm of Toyota, and it was founded because, as critics have observed, it stands to share Toyota’s expertise at running a tight ship.

“This is a routine activity for TSSC, this is what they do,” said Vazin of the division that’s helped 320 entities to date all free of charge.

Unconvinced

Upon being told Toyota’s non-profit arm and not Toyota Motor North America itself was considering consulting with the government, the EWG’s Cook was not persuaded.

Cook said that unlike work with other organizations that may have used Toyota’s advice to improve their effectiveness, Pruitt and President Trump are taking extraordinary measures through slashing its staff and budget, to hobble the EPA and its mission.

“Administrator Pruitt has no desire to make the EPA more effective and efficient, and anyone who has followed the constant assaults on public health and environmental protection by Pruitt and President Trump would almost certainly agree,” said Ken Cook co-founder and President of Environmental Working Group. “He was installed as EPA Administrator to dismantle the agency’s ability to protect our air, water and land, not improve it; and if he can glean any free advice from Toyota on how to achieve his goals, I have no doubt he’ll use it.

Any partnership between Toyota and Pruitt should, EWG believes, be seen through this lens.

“Mr. Pruitt couldn’t care less about his reputation among Americans who support environmentally-friendly companies through their purchasing power, but Toyota should,” Cook said. “Lending any advice and support to Pruitt as he drives the EPA into the ground is a public relations nightmare-in-waiting for a company that makes its commitment to sustainability such a prominent part of its pitch to consumers.”

This month Toyota was recognized by Newsweek for ranking in the top 5 percent of global companies and was named the “Best in Industry Global” in the automobiles category. Toyota was also ranked number 16 of the Global 500 greenest companies and number 1 in the automobile category.

The company offered no further comment to Cook’s assertions.