Lawmakers press Wheeler on agency’s proposed budget cuts

Source: By Kevin Bogardus, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, April 10, 2019

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler was on Capitol Hill again yesterday to defend President Trump’s budget plan for the agency.

Wheeler testified before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, saying the fiscal 2020 proposal, which would slash nearly a third of EPA’s current funds, would support the agency’s mission of protecting public health and the environment.

Democratic lawmakers did not accept that assessment from the EPA chief, instead saying the Trump administration continued to focus on rolling back environmental regulations at the agency.

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), the subcommittee’s chairman, said that while Wheeler has not been swamped with the same ethics troubles as his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, concerns remain over EPA’s policy direction.

“While I’m relieved that you have not continued his pattern of indiscretions and ethical violations, I do have serious concerns about the course this agency, the EPA, has plotted under your leadership,” Tonko said, saying the agency has downplayed climate change and devalued science.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), ranking member on the subcommittee, was not as troubled by Trump’s proposed budget cuts for EPA. Lawmakers should not be supporting duplicative environmental programs, he said.

“We should not advocate for more funding if all it is buying us is bureaucracy, regulatory confusion with other agencies, or woke-sounding programs that don’t really improve public health and the environment,” Shimkus said.

Democrats used today’s hearing to press Wheeler to update lawmakers on planned rules as well as release more information.

Tonko asked the EPA head about the “secret science” proposal, which would limit EPA to using studies with publicly available data to draft its regulations. The agency has often used research that relied on health data kept confidential for privacy reasons to support its rules.

Wheeler said EPA intends to move forward with the proposal and issue it by the end of this year.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the full committee, also pushed Wheeler on several fronts, including EPA’s release of studies related to the chemical Pigment Violet 29.

Pallone lamented some of that information still had redactions and asked Wheeler to release it in full. The EPA administrator said the data was confidential business information.

“So the answer is no again,” Pallone cut him off.

“Under the law, we can’t,” Wheeler replied.

Republicans also checked in during today’s hearing about what was happening at EPA.

Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) asked Wheeler about EPA’s realignment of its 10 regional offices. Wheeler said the goal was to have those branches mirror the functions of headquarters, and the realignment should be implemented by Monday. He said some regional offices would be standing up enforcement divisions and other program offices under the proposal.

“I think consistency is long overdue, so thank you for doing that,” McKinley said.

Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) asked about EPA’s plans for the New Source Review program, which requires industrial facilities to add modern pollution controls when they are built or modified and has been heavily lobbied on by industry.

Wheeler said the agency was trying to modernize the program and noted changes to it were included in EPA’s rule to curb power plant carbon emissions, known as the Affordable Clean Energy, or ACE, rule. The NSR changes may not remain in the final regulation, said the EPA chief.

“We are looking at whether or not to include that in the final regulation or separate it out as a separate NSR regulation,” Wheeler said. “We will move forward with both pieces.”

Wheeler was also questioned over EPA’s handling of auto fuel efficiency standards. The agency has pulled back on Obama-era clean car rules and will revoke California’s waiver to set its own tougher vehicle standards.

At today’s hearing, Wheeler said EPA’s fuel efficiency rule was not completed yet but the agency was moving forward on revoking California’s waiver. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) pleaded with the EPA administrator to restart negotiations with Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, over the clean car standards.

“Mary is willing to go back to the table. Can we go to the table and get one national standard that will keep a strong, competitive auto industry?” Dingell said.

“I would love to have a 50-state solution on this,” Wheeler said. He has said recently that he hopes California will not sue the agency once the final regulation is released (Greenwire, April 4).

Parochial concerns were also apparent at today’s hearing. Dingell took the chance to ask Wheeler to step back from the planned closure of the Large Lakes Research Station, an EPA facility in Grosse Ile, Mich.

“I can certainly take another look at it,” Wheeler said, although he noted EPA has been tasked with reducing its real estate footprint.

Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) said EPA’s budget plan would cut into its Chesapeake Bay cleanup program. Under the proposal, the initiative would receive $7.3 million, or about 10% of its current funding.

Sarbanes noted Trump had said he would fully fund the Great Lakes cleanup program despite his budget slashing its funds. “We haven’t had the same kind of declaration or commitment made with respect to the Chesapeake Bay,” said the lawmaker, adding he expected Congress would restore the Chesapeake Bay program’s funding.

“We will utilize all the funds that Congress gives us for the bay,” Wheeler said.