WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 2017 – Democrats and Republicans at a Senate hearing today offered distinctly different visions of the role of the Environmental Protection Agency if Donald Trump nominee Scott Pruitt is confirmed to lead the agency.
Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee peppered the Oklahoma attorney general with questions, often about Pruitt’s record of suing EPA on behalf of the oil industry in his state.
EPW Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., however, was ready each time to counter with statements or news articles rebutting whatever criticism that had just been leveled against Pruitt. GOP senators also were happy to let Pruitt use some of their time to provide more detailed responses to questions the Democrats had just asked him.
Along the way, Pruitt offered some insight into how he might run the agency charged with interpreting and enforcing the Clean Water and Clean Air acts.
Despite having a reputation as a friend of the petroleum industry, which through taxes is responsible for 25 percent of his state’s budget, Pruitt promised to implement the Renewable Fuel Standard as anticipated by Congress. Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth said she was “Incredibly concerned about the future of biofuels under a Scott Pruitt-led EPA,” but Pruitt said his job at EPA will be to “honor the intent” of Congress. “It’s not job of the administrator of EPA to do anything other than administer the program,” he said.
Also on RFS, he said that EPA’s authority to waive the volume requirements in the RFS should be used “judiciously.” RFS proponents have been critical in the past when EPA has set levels for blended fuel below those in the law.
Pruitt would not commit to keeping the “point of obligation” under the RFS at the refiner level. Some refiners have petitioned EPA to shift the obligation for meeting the law’s requirements downstream – to blenders, for example. In November, EPA proposed to reject those petitions, but Pruitt said that he could not promise to keep the point of obligation where it is because the agency is still accepting public comments.
Pruitt said climate change is a reality, echoing Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., who has been nominated to be Interior Secretary, who was questioned about the phenomenon in his confirmation hearing on Tuesday. “I do not believe that climate change is a hoax,” Pruitt said. Also in line with what Zinke said at his hearing, Pruitt said that “human activity has an influence,” but the extent of that influence is not clear.
On the “waters of the U.S.” rule, which Oklahoma and 30 other states have challenged in court, Pruitt said there are problems with a rule that classifies a creekbed in Oklahoma that is dry 90 percent of the year as a “water of the U.S.” (Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, offered her own graphic explanation of the effect of the rule on her state, displaying a map that said 97 percent of Iowa would be a jurisdictional water under EPA’s rule. “I live in a water of the United States,” she said.)
Asked by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., where EPA went wrong in the WOTUS rule, which is currently stayed by the courts, Pruitt would not offer specifics. “Taking steps to provide clarity is important,” he said. He also said it could be beneficial for Congress to step in and clarify the law.
Interestingly, considering he had challenged it in court, Pruitt defended the Chesapeake Bay TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load), a program established by EPA in 2010 that sets targets to reduce nutrients flowing into the bay from six states and the District of Columbia.
“I applaud the effort by the states,” Pruitt said, pointedly not mentioning EPA except to say, “EPA came alongside and took that TMDL and is providing assistance to those six states.”
“That process represents what should occur,” he said, adding that he would enforce the TMDL. Explaining the state’s role as a plaintiff in the failed legal challenge to the TMDL, he said, “There was concern about precedent,” but now “EPA has acknowledged their role is more informational.”
In his opening statement, Pruitt spoke about the importance of “cooperative federalism.”
“Congress has wisely and appropriately directed the EPA through our environmental statutes to utilize the expertise and resources of the states to better protect the environment, and for the states to remain our nation’s frontline environmental implementers and enforcers,” he said.
Pruitt would not commit to recusing himself from active lawsuits he has filed against EPA, saying only that he would recuse himself if directed to do so by EPA ethics counsel.
That was not enough for Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who told Pruitt that “to create an appearance of independence, it’s critical that you recuse yourself.”
From the tenor of the hearing, it seems clear that most or all of the 10 Democrats on the committee will vote against Pruitt, but since he appears to have the solid backing of all 11 Republicans, his nomination is likely to get to the Senate floor.
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