WASHINGTON, Feb. 17, 2017 - The EPA is about to get a new administrator. The Senate is expected today to approve Scott Pruitt’s nomination to head the EPA after he cleared a key procedural hurdle yesterday. 

Two energy-state Democrats - Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia - joined all 52 Republicans in voting to move the nomination to a final vote. 

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said that getting Pruitt in place at EPA will allow him to start attacking the “broad and sweeping” Obama-era regulations “that have hurt our economy and have failed to protect our environment.” 

Judge orders release of Pruitt emails. Democrats continued to blast Pruitt for positions he took on a range of issues, including climate change, as attorney general of Oklahoma. Democrats also pressed their complaints about his refusal to release his email communications with the energy industry. Late yesterday, a state judge in Oklahoma ordered the release of the documents starting no later than Tuesday. 

The judge said there had been an “abject failure” on the part of Pruitt’s office to comply with  the state’s open-records law. 

Debbie Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said on the Senate floor yesterday that Pruitt “does not have the requisite experience and track record” to lead an agency that’s critical to “protecting the health and the well-being of the American people.” 

Labor nominee unknown to ag. President Trump wasted no time naming a new nominee to head the Labor Department. But unlike Trump’s first choice for the post, law school dean Alexander Acosta is a relative unknown to the food and agriculture sector. 

Experts in farm labor policy tell Agri-Pulse that they simply knew nothing about Acosta, who is of Cuban descent and was once a member of the National Labor Relations Board. 

Trump’s original nominee, fast-food CEO Andrew Puzder, is a vocal supporter of immigrant labor and of comprehensive immigration reform, issues that played a part in derailing his nomination.

The National Restaurant Association, whose member companies rely heavily on immigrant labor, said it wanted to learn more about Acosta’s positions on labor issues. The restaurant group had expressed disappointment at Puzder’s decision to withdraw his name. 

Trump: ‘fair trade, not free.’ Trump announced the Acosta nomination at a wide-ranging news conference yesterday afternoon in which he repeatedly attacked the media and also took another chance to criticize the U.S. trade policy that he inherited.  

He called the Trans-Pacific Partnership a “job-killing disaster,” and he emphasized that his administration would be negotiating trade deals that are “fair .. not free.” That phrasing has long been used by critics of new agreements that lower trade barriers.

USDA sees slow improvement in farm economy. USDA economists believe that the U.S. economy will recover slowly over the next years as farmers adjust to lower commodity prices and reduced input costs. 

USDA’s 10-year projections expect farmers to reduce plantings of corn and other crops while expanding livestock production to take advantage of reduced feed costs. The economists say that expected improvements in corn yields will be enough to take care of the projected increases in demand for corn.

USDA expects agricultural exports to keep growing but the forecast assumes no changes in existing trade arrangements. There is a lot of uncertainty in anxiety among producers at the moment given Trump’s pledges to impose tariffs on China and renegotiate the North American Free-Trade Agreement. 

Pesticide bills clear House Ag. The House Agriculture Committee has approved two bills important to the pesticide industry. The first of the bills, the Pesticide Registration Enhancement Act would adjust fees, increase transparency and encourages good laboratory practices, according to the committee.

The bill reauthorizes the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act.  CropLife America’s Beau Greenwood said the bill would  ensure “the continuation of the process improvements in EPA’s registration program, guarantees stable funding for the agency and protects block grants for training and education programs.”

The second bill, also approved by voice vote, would prevent EPA from requiring water discharge permits for the lawful application of a registered pesticide. The industry has complained for years about the requirement, calling it redundant.

“The confusion caused by the current process serves as fodder for nuisance suits and the proposed fix will provide a responsible solution,” said Rebeckah Adcock, also of CropLife America. It remains to be seen whether the bill can get enough Democratic support to pass the Senate. 

SNAP restrictions get mixed reception. Lawmakers who will be writing the next farm bill aren’t sold yet on the idea of restricting the types of foods and beverages that can be purchased with SNAP benefits. 

A USDA study released in November found that SNAP recipients spent about 20 cents of every dollar on sweetened drinks, desserts, salty snacks and candy. Some conservatives say the finding justifies putting limits on SNAP purchases.

However, only a small portion of the House Agriculture Committee expressed interest in the idea during a hearing yesterday.

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, has been guarded on the issue. He issued a statement after the hearing that simply reflected the division of opinion: “While there is a case to be made for encouraging recipients to make healthy purchasing decisions, there are also concerns worth noting when it comes to restricting certain food and beverage options.”

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, said that imposing restrictions on SNAP would “open a real can of worms. Grocery stores have no interest being the food police, and USDA has been resistant to that effort as well,” Peterson said. 

He said it. “If a country is taking advantage we’re not going to let that happen any more. Every country takes advantage, almost.” - President Trump on his trade policy.

Spencer Chase and Steve Davies contributed to this report.