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U.S. EPA head seeks to avoid settlements with green groups

WASHINGTON, Oct 16 (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a directive to his agency on Monday seeking to end the practice of settling lawsuits with environmental groups behind closed doors, saying the groups have had too much influence on regulation.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who sued the agency he now runs more than a dozen times in his former job as attorney general of oil producing Oklahoma, has long railed against the so-called practice of "sue and settle." The EPA under former President Barack Obama quietly settled lawsuits from environmental groups with little input from regulated entities, such as power plants, and state governments, he argues.

The directive seeks to make EPA more transparent about lawsuits by reaching out to states and industry that could be affected by settlements, forbidding the practice of entering into settlements that exceed the authority of courts, and excluding attorney's fees and litigation costs when settling with groups.

Most lawsuits by green groups on the agency seek to push the agency to speed up regulation on issues such as climate and air and water pollution, studies have shown.

"The days of regulation through litigation are over," Pruitt said. "We will no longer go behind closed doors and use consent decrees and settlement agreements to resolve lawsuits filed against the agency."

Pruitt's order was supported by conservative groups.

Daren Bakst, a research fellow in agricultural policy at the Heritage Foundation think tank, said sue and settle has led to "egregious antics" that have "effectively handed over the setting of agency priorities to environmental pressure groups," and has led to rushed rulemaking by the agency.

But Pat Parenteau, an environmental law professor at the Vermont Law School, said Pruitt's directive would be "counterproductive" and costly because in the end courts could fine the agency if it does not meet compliance dates for issuing regulations.

"He can fight it if he wants as long as he wants, and spend as much money as he wants," Parenteau said. "But in the end if you've missed a statutory deadline, you are going to be ordered (by a court) to comply and then you are going to be ordered to pay fees." (Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)