‘We’re getting closer’ to deal on air nominee — Sen. Ernst

Source: Sean Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 19, 2017

A key senator yesterday said she was “almost” ready to declare victory in a standoff with the Trump administration that has snagged the nomination of Bill Wehrum to head U.S. EPA’s air office.

“I do think we’re getting closer,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) told reporters at the Capitol yesterday, though stopping short of predicting a deal could arrive in time to allow a committee vote next week. “We want to know that Scott Pruitt as the head of the agency is going to uphold the spirit of the law” on the renewable fuel standard, she added.

Wehrum’s nomination has become entangled with an EPA proposal to reduce blend volumes of biodiesel and some other renewables, a move that could ultimately hurt Iowa corn growers.

Thus far, however, Ernst has been unable to nail down the “reassurances” needed to get her support for moving Wehrum’s nomination out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The panel, split 11-10 along party lines, had been scheduled to vote on the candidacies of Wehrum and three other EPA nominees yesterday. Instead, Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) abruptly shelved the meeting late Tuesday. With all 10 EPW Democrats expected to oppose Wehrum and the other nominees, Republicans cannot afford any defections.

Barrasso reiterated yesterday that he now plans to hold the vote next week. Asked whether an agreement can be reached by then, Ernst answered that the administration, EPA and committee are anxious to move ahead with the nominations and are involved in “nonstop” discussions with her staff. While declining to spell out the terms she’s seeking, Ernst stressed that she wanted any commitments on the administration’s part to be public.

She’s gotten the White House’s attention. Pruitt met Tuesday with Ernst and other Midwestern senators; at a news conference yesterday, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) said she had taken calls from President Trump and Pruitt but acknowledged that both left open the possibility of cuts (E&E News PM, Oct. 18).

Wehrum, who served as acting head of EPA’s air office from 2005 to 2007 during George W. Bush’s administration, is now a lawyer in private practice. With EPA already salted with several top political appointees tied to the oil industry, Wehrum’s clients have included the American Petroleum Institute, a lobbying powerhouse that is no fan of the RFS program.

At an Oct. 4 confirmation hearing, Ernst pressed him on RFS issues but got answers that she described yesterday as “pretty darn squishy.” Afterward, Ernst said she let staff on the Environment and Public Works Committee know that she was not comfortable with proceeding with his nomination.

Democrats have also been critical of Wehrum, albeit more because of his industry connections and record during his prior stint at EPA.

Also yesterday, however, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and EPW Committee member, singled out the RFS as a reason for a “hold” on his nomination. Wehrum’s “refusal to recuse himself from RFS-related issues despite his well-documented conflicts of interest should alarm all of my colleagues,” Duckworth said in a news release.

As a parliamentary delaying tactic, holds are typically used to block action by the full Senate, not a committee. In a follow-up interview at the Capitol, Duckworth agreed that the gesture was symbolic. “I wanted to make sure I sent the message,” she said.

Almost nine months after Trump was sworn in, Pruitt remains the only Senate-confirmed appointee at EPA.

Duckworth similarly placed a hold on the nomination of Michael Dourson to lead EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, saying that Koch Industries Inc., the Kansas-based conglomerate, used his research to “falsely” claim that exposure to petroleum coke — stored at a Chicago site — is safe.

As E&E News reported yesterday, Dourson is already working at EPA as an adviser to Pruitt (E&E Daily, Oct. 18). The news prompted denunciations later in the day from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization. EPA “should immediately terminate its relationship with Mr. Dourson until the nomination process is complete,” Gillibrand said in a statement.

In an emailed response, EPA spokesman Michael Abboud stressed that Dourson has already had a hearing before the EPW Committee and forwarded a list of eight Obama-era EPA nominees who worked as senior advisers or in other jobs while awaiting Senate confirmation.

Among them was Janet McCabe, who served as acting air chief in the final years of the Obama administration and was never confirmed. Similarly, Kenneth Kopocis, nominated to head the water office in 2011, failed to win confirmation and held the post on an acting basis until retiring in 2015 (E&E Daily, Oct. 27, 2015).