WASHINGTON (CN) – An environmental advocacy group says it is using the Freedom of Information Act strategically to try to force the Trump administration to restore climate change data that has gone missing since the inauguration.
The Center for Biological Diversity made its latest move in this effort on Tuesday when it filed a federal FOIA lawsuit for records that would shed light on any Trump administration directives to scrub climate change-related information from government websites.
The group filed a “flurry” of FOIA requests to federal agencies in late March and early April in response to news reports that the new administration had ordered federal agencies to stop using climate-change related words in official communications, according to Amy Atwood, the organization’s counsel.
Those news reports, however, did not uncover at what level of the federal government any such instructions originated.
“We want to know where the directive came from — who it came from, when it came from them and what considerations they were thinking of when they made this very strange request, or directive,” Atwood said in a phone interview.
The group filed the May 23 lawsuit against the Departments of Interior, Energy, State and the Environmental Protection Agency.
According to the 36-page complaint, the Center of Biological Diversity sought “directives or communications barring or removing climate change-related words or phrases from formal communications as well as the information, such as webpages about climate change, that has been removed from public view.”
The Center for Biological Diversity hopes to shed light on the factual circumstances surrounding any such directive, but it has another objective: using a provision of the Freedom of Information Act that requires agencies to publicly disclose information.
“The FOIA has a provision that provides that if a federal agency receives a request for the same records three times or more, it must make them available electronically,” Atwood said. “And that’s generally construed to mean available on their electronic reading rooms or somewhere on their websites.”
The group has teamed up with other organizations in its efforts.
“We’ve been working with two other requesters, and in some cases to try to force the agencies to make information that has been deleted, publicly available once again utilizing that provision of the FOIA,” she added.
Atwood says the group is “absolutely” concerned about what it perceives as censorship of climate change information by the Trump administration.
“I mean concern would be an understatement,” Atwood said. “We are outraged by what appears to be a systematic attempt to censor the ability of federal public servants to speak frankly about one of the most pressing environmental problems facing the world today.”
Atwood said the Center for Biological Diversity believes the information it requested is “a matter of great public interest” that other groups are also seeking.
Using the FOIA “rule of three,” Atwood said, will help expose the circumstances behind any directive to censor climate change information, and will allow the public to better understand how the Trump administration is approaching the climate change problem.
According to the lawsuit, the defendant agencies have not yet disclosed any records to the Center for Biological Diversity, nor have they indicated when they might do so.
The Department of Energy did not respond to an emailed request for comment. The Department of State and the EPA said they do not comment on pending litigation, and declined to say whether the Trump administration had ordered them to stop using climate change terminology.
The Department of Interior could not be reached for comment.