Pruitt Remains Guarded on Biofuel Program’s Future

Source: By Jessie Stolark, EESI • Posted: Monday, January 23, 2017

On January 18, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a six-plus hour hearing for EPA administrator nominee, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.

Pruitt was questioned by Democratic members on his ties to the oil industry, the 14 lawsuits he filed against EPA as Oklahoma Attorney General, and on his use of his office to lobby on behalf of the oil industry against state and federal environmental rules. Republican members largely praised him for his commitment to return oversight of environmental regulation to the states, ending what Pruitt referred to as “bootstrapp[ing] its own powers and tools through rule-making” under the Obama administration.

Agriculture groups have opposed what they see as a top-down approach to rulemaking in the Obama administration, from water quality regulations to the way that the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) is administered. Earlier this month, outgoing EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy expressed regret over the EPA’s relationship with rural communities, stating, “We tried to change the outreach and messaging in rural America in a number of ways, but … has it changed the rhetoric that people hear?  It hasn’t.”

Overall, Pruitt was resolute about upholding legal requirements placed on EPA by Congress or the Supreme Court, such as the 2009 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, which ultimately resulted in the EPA finding that carbon dioxide (CO2) is an endangerment to human health, or the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), which requires states to reduce emissions that contribute to air pollution in other states.

Similarly, he said that he would uphold the Congressionally-mandated Renewable Fuel Standard, stating, “To honor the intent and the expression of the Renewable Fuel Standard statute is very, very important. It’s not the job of the administrator or the EPA to do anything other than administer the program according to the intent of Congress. And I commit to you to do so.”

While Republican lawmakers, including Senators Deb Fischer (R-NE) and Joni Ernst (R-IA) seemed largely satisfied with Pruitt’s responses to RFS-related questions, freshman Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), pressed Pruitt on his intentions with RFS as head of the agency overseeing the program. She commented that his commitments on RFS were “were nice sounding but vague and hollow,” and expressed concern that Pruitt could use the flexibility of the law to weaken the program, stating, “As EPA Administrator you can still technically be in compliance with Congress with the law, but actually be working against it.”

One such issue is the point of obligation, which Pruitt commented that he was not able to “prejudge that outcome,” referring to the EPA’s ongoing comment period.  A group of independent refiners, including Carl Icahn’s CVR Energy, have argued that requiring refiners to blend renewable fuels is undue burden. They would like the requirement to be moved further downstream, to fuel retailers. Regarding the point of obligation, Icahn, who was key in nabbing the nomination for Pruitt, stated that Pruitt “will get done what needs to be done … especially concerning the obligated party rule, which is absurd and is destroying a number of parties.”

The Trump administration is packed with oil industry execs who have a long history of opposing renewable fuels and renewable energy in general.  They include Carl Ichan, owner of CVR Energy, as special advisor on regulatory reform, and Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon Mobil, as nominee for Secretary of State.  While Department of Energy nominee Rick Perry had previously called for the abolishment of the agency, his comments during Thursday’s nomination hearing were more tempered, even praising the work of basic science carried out by the Department and its National Labs.

It is expected that Pruitt will be confirmed by the Senate, with the full support of Senate Republicans as well as Senator Manchin (D-WV).

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