EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt spent his Thursday either deflecting blame or pledging to do better as he answered questions from two panels of House members.
The questions came from members of House Energy and Commerce and Appropriations subcommittees as Pruitt works to recover from a string of ethical and policy concerns that have generated negative headlines for weeks. Those reports, Pruitt said, are the work of those trying to discredit his work as EPA administrator.
“Let me be very clear, I have nothing to hide as it relates to how I’ve run the agency over the last 16 months,” Pruitt said Thursday afternoon. “I’m not afraid to admit that it has been a learning process, and when Congress or independent bodies in their oversight roles find fault in our decision-making, I want to correct that and ensure that it does not happen again.”
Democrats used the first hearing, before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, to hit Pruitt hard on ethical and spending issues, including his rental of a room from a lobbyist’s wife and installation of a $43,000 sound-proof booth at EPA.
“You have failed as a steward of American taxpayer dollars and of our environment,” said New York Rep. Paul Tonko, the ranking Democrat on the environment subcommittee, which oversees EPA.
Republicans largely stuck to policy questions, and the first question Pruitt received from the subcommittee chairman, John Shimkus, R-Ill., was about his management of biofuel policy.
Shimkus and other members from oil-producing states pressed Pruitt to work with Congress to reform the RFS rather than taking regulatory actions on his own. Shimkus suggested that President Trump’s attempt to negotiate an agreement between refiners and ethanol producers was complicating efforts on Capitol Hill to revise the Renewable Fuel Standard.
The potential for administrative actions is “hanging like the sword of Damocles over efforts on Capitol Hill to reach an enduring legislative solution,” said Shimkus.
Pruitt defended his use of his authority to provide small refineries - which process fewer than 75,000 barrels a day - with waivers from the RFS. He said the agency has received more than 30 applications from refiners for RFS waivers this year after getting 24 in 2017.
“You see a lot of pressure on those small refineries because of these escalating RIN prices,” Pruitt told Rep. Gene Green, a Democrat from the Houston area who questioned Pruitt’s issuance of the waivers, noting the American Petroleum Institute’s opposition to granting exemptions for small refineries. Green said the smallest refinery in the Houston area produced 100,000 barrels a day. RINs, or Renewable Identification Numbers, are used to track batches of biofuels through production, use and trading.
To help the ethanol industry, Pruitt said the agency was considering a waiver from the Reid Vapor Pressure - a measure of gasoline volatility -- to allow year-around sales of E15.
To aid refiners, the agency is looking at ways to stabilize the RIN market, including possible limits on how long RINs can be held and who can buy and sell them, he said.
“The volatility of the RIN trading platform is creating instability across the entire RFS discussion. It’s in everybody’s best interest to get more clarity and confidence in how this RIN platform and relief needs to occur,” Pruitt said.
“It’s going to benefit the ethanol industry, benefit the ag sector and I think benefit those who are suffering with the RIN obligations. It is our hope that we can chart a path forward with Congress.”
Later in the day, leaders of the House Biofuels Caucus sent Pruitt a letter calling on the EPA to cease issuing the waivers.
The afternoon hearing before the Appropriations subcommittee included many questions about the EPA’s budgeted priorities, as well as policy questions. Panel Democrats broadly decried the proposed cut to EPA’s budget – about $2.5 billion, or 23 percent – while Republicans offered more pointed criticism of specific provisions they felt were underfunded.
But Pruitt’s broader job performance was also discussed as subcommittee Democrats said the EPA was not adequately responding to climate change.
“I don’t know how the head of the Environmental Protection Agency can have so little concern about climate change,” Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, told Pruitt. “You do not seem to be serving our interests.”
Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum criticized the EPA’s proposed rule released earlier this week to tweak the use of science in agency decision-making. McCollum said the policy would inadequately protect health records, an assertion Pruitt denied. She also said Pruitt’s documentation of death threats he’s received as EPA administrator was “not a satisfactory answer.” While many members of Congress have called on Pruitt in recent weeks to resign, McCollum chose to relay that message directly to the administrator on Thursday.
“You had an opportunity to come here today and say you were going to support peer-reviewed science that’s been used for decades. You had an opportunity to take full responsibility for any ethical lapses that you’ve had,” she said. “I’m going to say it clearly and straight to you, because I think you deserve that; Mr. Pruitt, I think it’s time that you resign.”
After both hearings had come to a close, Tom Cole, a Republican from Pruitt’s home state of Oklahoma, said the embattled administrator performed well as a witness.
“I know him well enough to not believe that he’s deliberately done anything wrong or that he’s made decisions in an inappropriate or unethical manner,” Cole said. “That’s just not the guy I know and I’ve known him a long time.”
Asked if Pruitt did enough on Thursday to hang onto his job, Cole said “there’s only one person’s thoughts that matter on that, and they’re not mine.” Alluding to the decision of whether or not to keep Pruitt that will ultimately be made by President Donald Trump, Cole noted that Trump likes Pruitt, and “I don’t think anything that happened today would undermine that opinion.”
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