The Environmental Protection Agency plans to work with Toyota Motor Corporation to overhaul internal management practices at the agency, Administrator Scott Pruitt said Thursday.

The announcement came in response to a question from Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) abou how the agency assessed its workload and determined how many people were necessary to meet its goals, at the first of two hearings before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Thursday morning. The EPA’s Office of Inspector General issued a report back in September 2011 criticizing the agency for not conducting a comprehensive workload analysis in 20 years, and Shimkus asked whether Pruitt planned to address it.

“We are actually partnering with Toyota to begin a lean process at the agency to evaluate management practices,” Pruitt said. “The agency for many years ― and this is something I found surprising ― has not measured outcomes consistently.”

The extent of the proposed partnership is unclear, but the EPA told HuffPost it was considering bringing on the company to advise on ways to streamline the National Environmental Policy Act process across agencies. 

“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.

The EPA has historically used the term “partner” to describe big companies it has worked with to save water and increase renewable energy use, but inviting a company regulated by the agency to alter internal practices appears to be “unprecedented,” according to Don Anair, deputy director of the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an EPA watchdog.

“We’ve seen a pattern with this EPA cozying up to industry,” Anair told HuffPost. “This is a clear conflict of interest.”  

The announcement, made as a passing remark on Pruitt’s first appearance before a Congressional oversight committee since taking office, raises concerns over how a corporate giant the EPA regulates could wield influence over agency functions. Like other automakers and trade associations, Toyota has lobbied aggressively to weaken Obama-era fuel economy standards.

“I don’t see anything wrong with learning from the private and public sectors from good management techniques,” Janet McCabe, the former acting assistant administrator at the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, told HuffPost. “But depending on how embedded in the organization they’re going to be, it could raise questions, since they are a regulated industry that’s interested in the substantive work of the agency.”

Pete Marovich via Getty Images
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the mission of the agency on Dec. 7. 

Toyota spokeswoman Karen Nielsen confirmed that the company is considering working with the EPA, but said it has not yet reached an agreement. She declined to comment on what that relationship would entail, the information Toyota would have access to, or how much the EPA offered to pay the company for its services.

“At this time, Toyota is in exploratory discussions with the EPA and nothing has been decided,” she wrote in an email to HuffPost. “We’re just exploring what a project would look like.”

Toyota proselytizes its management practices, dubbed “The Toyota Way,” to many organizations, including hospitals and nonprofits, and bringing the company in to the EPA could be “a great idea,” said Michael Useem, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The agency would likely create a memorandum of understanding barring Toyota from working on policy issues, he said. 

“But who knows in the end,” Useem said. 

We’ve seen a pattern with this EPA cozying up to industry. Don Anair, Union of Concerned Scientists

The partnership marks what critics see as another instance of the EPA being overly friendly with industries whose pollution it’s supposed to police. Pruitt spent his early months meeting with oil, gas and mining companies while spurning environmental and public health advocates. The primary focus of his tenure so far has been eliminating regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit pollution and toxic pesticides.  

“I don’t have any problem with looking to business for management models, assuming appropriate distance between management models from companies and their compliance obligations,” Stan Meiberg, a former acting deputy EPA administrator who spent 39 years at the agency, told HuffPost. 

“It is worth remembering that while efficient operations are worthwhile, government is not a business,” he added. “Efficiency at the expense of justice is not what democratic government is about.”

The news came one day after a former Volkswagen executive was sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in the auto giant’s emissions cheating scandal. The EPA spearheaded the 2015 investigation into Volkswagen’s scheme to fit 482,000 vehicles sold in the United States with software to cheat on government tests for diesel pollution, in violation of the Clean Air Act.

Toyota has invested heavily in hydrogen battery technology and electric vehicles in recent years. The EPA awarded the company for fuel efficiency measures in its auto hauling division in 2015 and energy-saving practices in its North American factories in 2010. But the world’s biggest carmaker has its own history of violating the Clean Air Act. 

In March 2003, the EPA reached a settlement with Toyota for failing to disclosure information about a faulty part that increased ozone pollution in 2.2 million vehicles sold in the U.S. As part of the agreement, Toyota spent $20 million to retrofit up to 3,000 diesel-powered vehicles, including school and municipal buses, with catalytic converters, filters and whole engines to reduce pollution.

“Given recent events, not sure I would be taking management advice from an auto company,” Cynthia Giles, who led the EPA’s enforcement and compliance office during the Volkswagen investigation, told HuffPost by email on Thursday.

This article was updated to include comments from Janet McCabe and Stan Meiberg. 

Read more: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/pruitt-toyota-partnership_us_5a29bbc7e4b069ec48abfce8