EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s Wednesday appearance before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee was heavy on biofuel talk as senators looked to pin him down on how the agency will approach a number of contentious topics.

The hearing was Wheeler’s first trip to Capitol Hill since he was named the agency’s acting administrator. The departure of his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, gave the hearing more of a focus on environmental policy rather than the string of ethical questions that would have almost certainly been raised had Pruitt been before the committee.

At the outset of the hearing, Delaware’s Tom Carper, the committee’s top Democrat, said he was pleased the committee was holding an oversight hearing examining the EPA, but “I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m even more pleased that the person sitting at the witness table is our acting administrator, not his predecessor.”

“The damage that Scott Pruitt has done to this agency will not be easily undone,” Carper later added.

From the perspective of the biofuels industry, Pruitt’s actions on the Renewable Fuel Standard were just the kind of damage Carper mentioned. Wheeler faced a number of questions about how he planned to address small refinery exemptions and a Reid Vapor Pressure waiver that would allow for E15 sales during the summer months as senators sought to put him on record pledging a course correction from the agency.

“You’ve taken care of the small refineries, but you haven’t taken care of the small farmers,” South Dakota Republican Mike Rounds said.

For his part, Wheeler pledged to be more transparent about how small refinery exemptions are offered, but by no means committed to slamming the door shut on future waivers. The exemptions, he said, are written into the law that governs the nation’s biofuel mandate, but the agency plans to be more descriptive concerning waivers that are issued.

Wheeler said the EPA is in the process of “developing a dashboard to put all the information out publicly so people know when we’re issuing a small refinery waiver and the circumstances around that.” The agency will still be mindful of confidential business information, but Wheeler said the EPA wants “to be as transparent as we can, and put all that information – including our process – out for the public to see.”

“Just because a company is a small refinery does not mean it should be entitled to a small refinery exemption,” he said.

When pressed by Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, about reallocating gallons waived through the exemptions, Wheeler said he agreed the EPA needs to “figure out a reallocation strategy, but we are confined by the law” and court decisions mandating the waivers be issued.

“As one of the former congressional staffers who helped write that section of the law, I wish we had spent a little bit more time on some of the details of it now that I’m helping implement it,” Wheeler, a former EPW committee staffer, said.

Wheeler was noncommittal when pressed for a pledge that the agency would initiate rulemaking to issue the RVP waver. He said the agency “can certainly start the process,” but “there’s certainly people who don’t think we have that authority.” Last week, President Donald Trump said in a trip to Iowa that he was “very close” to “pulling off” the waiver, but the EPA has yet to make any announcement on that front, and Wheeler has said the issue may be better addressed through legislation.

Wheeler, who also confirmed that the agency would publish a proposal for vehicle emissions targets this week, received a vote of confidence from Committee Chair John Barrasso, R-Wyo., at the beginning of the hearing. Barrasso said he had been “very impressed with how (Wheeler) has started his tenure as the head of the agency” and said he would be “very well qualified” to have the acting title wiped from his business card.

“I would encourage President Trump to nominate Andrew Wheeler to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency,” Barrasso said.

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