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Scott Pruitt Steps down as EPA Head after Ethics, Management Scandals

Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Agency, Federal Regulation, Opinions, Policy, White House
July 5, 2018

by Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin (Washington Post)  Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who relentlessly pursued President Trump’s promises of deregulation at the Environmental Protection Agency, resigned Thursday after controversies over his lavish spending, ethical lapses and management decisions eroded the president’s confidence in one of his most ardent Cabinet members. 

In recent weeks, an exodus of trusted staffers left Pruitt increasingly isolated, and some Republican lawmakers wearied of defending him. Investigators on Capitol Hill had summoned current and former EPA aides for questioning as part of more than a dozen federal inquiries into Pruitt’s spending and management of the agency.

On Thursday, the White House informed Pruitt, who was not in the office, that he had to submit his resignation, according to two individuals who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. President Trump did not speak to the administrator directly, according to a third individual, but instead called Pruitt’s top deputy, Andrew Wheeler, to inform him that he would be taking the helm of the agency. 

Wheeler, a former Senate staffer and EPA employee who spent a decade representing coal, mining and other energy companies, will become acting administrator on Monday, Trump tweeted.

Democrats and environmentalists hailed Pruitt’s exit, even as they viewed Wheeler’s rise warily and warned that he would continue many of the same policies.

During his roughly 16 months in office, Pruitt took steps to reverse more than a dozen major Obama-era regulations and overhauled key elements of the agency’s approach to scientific research.

 While serving as Oklahoma’s attorney general, he made a name for himself in conservative circles by suing the EPA 14 times. And after taking over the EPA, he spent the bulk of his time meeting privately with industry leaders regulated by his agency, including top executives from the fossil fuel, agriculture and chemical sectors.

In the early months of the Trump administration, when other Cabinet members were struggling to recruit deputies and navigate their departments, Pruitt was already unraveling federal restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions and toxic-waste discharge from coal-fired power plants. He declined to ban a commonly used pesticide linked to potential neurological damage in fetuses, as the agency had previously proposed.

And he pushed Trump to announce a U.S. withdrawal from the landmark Paris climate accord. He questioned not only the science of climate change but also the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is the primary contributor to global warming. He fundamentally altered the makeup of key scientific advisory boards, adding industry voices and barring scientists who had received EPA grants.

He refused to publish his schedule in advance or to release transcripts of speeches he delivered in front of industry groups. He installed biometric locks on doors and constructed a soundproof phone booth for his use.

From his third-floor, wood-paneled suite, Pruitt largely insulated himself from career staffers, many of whom had worked to craft the policies he sought to dismantle. Meanwhile, through buyouts and a hiring freeze, he proudly shrank the EPA’s workforce to levels not seen since the 1980s.   READ MORE

Scott Pruitt’s likely successor has long lobbying history on issues before the EPA (Washington Post)

RFA Statement on Resignation of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt (Renewable Fuels Association)

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt resigns (Biofuels Digest)

Pruitt resigns, Wheeler to become acting administrator of the EPA (Ethanol Producer Magazine)

New EPA Boss Same as the Old: Pruitt Policies to Stay Intact (Bloomberg)

Embattled EPA Head Pruitt Resigns–Pruitt’s Resignation Comes After Growing RFS Anger (DTN The Progressive Farmer)

1 big thing: What the EPA will be like now (Axios)

Pruitt Out at EPA, Farm Groups React (Hoosier Ag Today)

Who is Andrew Wheeler, EPA’s new acting chief? (The Hill)

GOP’s ethanol supporters relieved by Pruitt resignation (Washington Examiner)

Ethanol supporters say “good riddance” to Scott Pruitt (Nebraska TV)

DEREGULATOR PRUITT RESIGNS AT EPA; UNDERMINED RFS  (Successful Farming)

A Big Win For ‘Big Corn’ As Anti-Ethanol Pruitt Departs EPA (Forbes)

Sen. Joni Ernst’s high-wire act: Balancing Trump and Iowa interests (Des Moines Register; includes VIDEO)

U.S. renewable fuel credits rise as EPA chief resigns: traders (Reuters)

SO, WHAT HAPPENED? (Politico’s Morning Energy)

Excerpt from Politico’s Morning Energy:  For weeks the White House has maintained it was concerned with the numerous allegations of wrongdoing by Pruitt, all the while affirming Trump still had faith in the administrator, particularly for his deregulatory zeal. But one Republican close to the White House said Thursday that Trump’s support for Pruitt finally dropped when he realized Wheeler could easily carry out the same regulatory rollback — sans the scandals.  READ MORE

Excerpt from The Washington Post:  While a lobbyist, Wheeler’s best-paying client was Murray Energy. The coal-mining company paid his firm $300,000 or more annually from 2009 through 2017, according to records from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Wheeler also represented Energy Fuels Resources, a uranium mining firm that could benefit from Trump’s December announcement to halve the size of the Bears Ears National Monument. He was lobbying the administration about the issue nearly nine months before the announcement.

Another former Wheeler client, the Minneapolis-based utility Xcel, has fought an EPA regulation that would require coal plants built between 1962 and 1977 to upgrade their facilities with scrubbers to meet sulfur dioxide emissions standards.

Another client, Darling Ingredients, paid Wheeler’s firm $420,000 over the past three years. The company has a stake in reforms of the complicated Renewable Fuel Standard and the tax credit for companies that blend ethanol with gasoline.

The Irving, Tex.-based company also agreed in 2016 to settle allegations of Clean Water Act violations at four facilities used to store petroleum fuels, vegetable oils and animal fats for just $99,000. In 2014, the company paid a $1.1 million penalty to EPA.   READ MORE

Excerpt from Renewable Fuels Association:  Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen had the following statement:

“For the past year, Scott Pruitt had been waging war against the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), the biofuels industry, and the millions of farmers and rural Americans who helped Donald Trump get elected. It appears these missteps finally caught up with Mr. Pruitt, who apparently thought that RFS stood for ‘Refinery First Strategy.’ Mr. Pruitt’s failure to follow President Trump’s directive to remove the red tape that restricts E15 from being sold in the summertime likely played a part in his demise, and the straw that broke the camel’s back may have been Mr. Pruitt’s recent proposal for 2019 RFS requirements that failed miserably to repair damages done to our nation’s farmers and biofuel producers.

“So, that sound you hear is a collective sigh of relief coming from the Midwest. We look forward to working with Acting Administrator Andy Wheeler, whose long career focusing on policies that recognize economic growth and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive is not undermined by an unmistakable anti-ethanol, anti-farmer bias.”  READ MORE

 

Excerpt from Ethanol Producer Magazine:  The U.S. Senate confirmed Wheeler’s nomination as deputy EPA administrator in April. He was nominated by Trump to fill the post in October 2017. Information released by the White House at that time indicates Wheeler was a principal and head of the energy and environment team at Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting and co-chaired the energy and natural resources industry team within the law firm. Prior to joining Faegre Baker Daniels he worked at the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for 14 years. He began his career at the EPA as a special assistant in the toxics office. Wheeler has been criticized by members of the environmental community for his ties to the coal industry.  READ MORE

 

Excerpt from Biofuels Digest:  Our take? The retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy from the US Supreme Court, we think, is a factor that should be highlighted.

Given the President’s avowed list of potential Supreme Court nominees, almost no support for confirmation could be expected from Democrats in a closely-divided US Senate. That puts Senate farm-state Republicans — including the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley — into a position of strength in the months-long battle by farmers to stop attacks by the EPA on the Renewable Fuel Standard, and to move the EPA ahead on approval for E15 ethanol year-long blending. It might be read as no accident that Senator Grassley issued a swift statement supporting the Pruitt ouster and citing two factors:

“President Trump made the right decision. Administrator Pruitt’s ethical scandals and his undermining of the President’s commitment to biofuels and Midwest farmers were distracting from the agency’s otherwise strong progress to free the nation of burdensome and harmful government regulations.”

For sure, there are widespread reports of displeasure and weariness at the White House with the narrative surrounding Administrator Pruitt. But why act now? We think the need to rally the GOP around a successful Supreme Court Justice confirmation is a frame that not only fits the facts, it fits the timing and fits the narrative coming out of the Senate and not just the White House press corps.

Stakeholder reaction

Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa

“President Trump made the right decision. Administrator Pruitt’s ethical scandals and his undermining of the President’s commitment to biofuels and Midwest farmers were distracting from the agency’s otherwise strong progress to free the nation of burdensome and harmful government regulations. Fewer things are more important for government officials than maintaining public trust. Administrator Pruitt, through his own actions, lost that trust. I hope Acting Administrator Wheeler views this as an opportunity to restore this Administration’s standing with farmers and the biofuels industry. I’m looking forward to working with Acting Administrator Wheeler to do just that.”

National Biodiesel Board VP of Federal Affairs Kurt Kovarik

“The EPA plays an important role in implementing policies that have a great impact on our industry. For that reason, we look forward to working with Mr. Wheeler and hope he will act more in line with President Trump’s support for America’s farmers, biofuels producers and the Renewable Fuel Standard.”

National Corn Growers Association president Kevin Skunes

“It’s no secret corn farmers have been frustrated with Scott Pruitt’s ongoing actions over the past year that have seriously undermined the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Even with this leadership change at the EPA, our priorities do not change. We will continue to push the EPA to stop granting unjustified RFS waivers. We expect the EPA to account for the more than 1.6 billion gallons the agency waived from 2016 and 2017 RFS obligations, and we will continue ask EPA to follow through on the president’s commitment to remove outdated regulations to allow higher blends of ethanol like E15 to be sold year-round. We are hopeful Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler will work with America’s corn farmers to give consumers more options at the pump to save them money and reduce emissions and provide farmers with certainty in the marketplace that comes with RFS integrity.”

Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor

“Administrator Pruitt’s tenure as administrator of the EPA put a heavy strain on this administration’s relationship with supporters, farmers, and biofuel producers across the heartland. We urge the EPA under the new leadership of acting Administrator Wheeler to reinforce those bonds and work as a partner to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the White House in efforts to revitalize rural communities and unleash American biofuels. He can start today by reversing the demand destruction caused by EPA waivers, acting on the president’s pledge to unlock E15, and upholding a strong Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).”

Advanced Biofuels Business Council Executive Director Brooke Coleman

“Scott Pruitt’s decisions on biofuels drove a wedge between President Trump and his backers in the Midwest. We’re very hopeful this will open a new chapter in the relationship between the EPA and rural communities. Andrew Wheeler could very easily come out of the gate strong by acting on the president’s pledge to lift regulations on E15 and halting abuse of refinery waivers. It would earn him a deep and loyal bench of supporters across rural America.”

New Energy America Executive Director Mike Carr

“While today’s resignation of Scott Pruitt is undoubtedly a victory for the environment and against corruption in government, it should also stand as a stark warning to other members of the Cabinet. As we’ve been saying, putting your personal and political agendas ahead of the real interests of voters will come back to bite you.  While reporters will enjoy citing the salacious details of the scandals, they’ve been there from day one of his ethically-challenged tenure. It’s been the revelation over the last weeks of the depth of the damage he’s done to the Renewable Fuel Standard and the related jobs in the heartland that took Scott Pruitt down. Now, the rest of the Administration have to deal with the tremendous damage Scott Pruitt’s waivers have done to the renewable fuels industry and the rural economies that rely on biofuels. Until this damage is undone, Pruitt’s actions will continue to lie at the feet of the President and the Republican Party.”

Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook

“Scott Pruitt will go down in history as a disgrace to the office of EPA administrator. He will forever be associated with extraordinary ethical corruption and the abuse of power for petty personal enrichments. Sadly, the ideological fervor with which Pruitt pursued the destruction of environmental regulations and the agency itself live on in the Trump administration. So while Pruitt is gone, and good riddance, our resistance to all he stood for will continue undiminished.”

American Energy Alliance President Thomas J. Pyle

“In the short time Administrator Pruitt was at the EPA, he accomplished much to reorient the Agency towards environmental improvement and away from an obsessive focus on global warming. The work he started on transparency, on the Clean Power Plan, on Waters of the United States, on State authority, on the federal fuel mandate, on the ethanol mandate, and on a host of other issues will ensure that the Agency remains focused on improving the environment rather than inhibiting consumer choice or compromising prosperity. We look forward to continuing to work with Acting Administrator Wheeler to fulfill the promise of this Administration, and we are confident that his knowledge, experience, and judgment will help the Trump Administration achieve its objectives with respect to environmental and energy issues.”

American Future Fund founder Nick Ryan

“Scott Pruitt was an embarrassment to Republicans, and President Trump made the right call by getting rid of him,” said Nick Ryan, AFF’s founder. “The EPA administrator should be someone focused more on the president’s agenda than scoring personal luxuries at the expense of taxpayers. Hopefully, the EPA will now become a true partner to lawmakers working to promote real prosperity in the heartland.”

Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas CEO Johannes Escudero

“The RNG Coalition looks forward to working constructively with Acting Administrator Wheeler to ensure that the Renewable Fuel Standard continues to benefit the American people, our economy and the environment by growing domestic production of biofuels like renewable natural gas and reducing dependence on foreign oil.”

Latino Victory Fund President Cristóbal J. Alexon

“Back in April, Latino Victory joined a group of organizations calling on EPA Administrator Pruitt to resign. Pruitt’s cuts to the EPA directly hurt communities of color across the United States. His self-interest and self-dealing hurt the agency and mission he swore to uphold. We cannot even begin to fully evaluate the damage Pruitt has wreaked on our environment and our community. This is not the last time we will hear about Scott Pruitt, there must be legal ramifications for the many investigations that arose during his tenure. His successor should know that we are watching him closely.”   READ MORE

Excerpt from Washington Examiner:  Pruitt had issued over two dozen “hardship” waivers to oil refineries, exempting them from having to blend ethanol into the nation’s gasoline supply under the Renewable Fuel Standard.

The waivers were meant to help refineries avoid the high cost of buying ethanol credits to abide by the program but ultimately reduced demand for ethanol, harming corn farmers. EPA is currently being sued over the waivers by farm groups and the ethanol industry, who argue that the waivers were issued illegally.

Both Grassley and (Iowa Senator Joni) Ernst expressed “hope” that Wheeler, who will now become the EPA’s acting administrator, will restore the administration’s standing with farmers. Many lawmakers have expressed confidence in Wheeler’s ability to run the agency. READ MORE

Excerpt from Hoosier Ag Today:  North Dakota farmer Kevin Skunes, president of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), said in a statement, “It’s no secret corn farmers have been frustrated with Scott Pruitt’s ongoing actions over the past year that have seriously undermined the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Even with this leadership change at the EPA, our priorities do not change. We will continue to push the EPA to stop granting unjustified RFS waivers. We expect the EPA to account for the more than 1.6 billion gallons the agency waived from 2016 and 2017 RFS obligations, and we will continue ask EPA to follow through on the president’s commitment to remove outdated regulations to allow higher blends of ethanol like E15 to be sold year-round. We are hopeful Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler will work with America’s corn farmers to give consumers more options at the pump to save them money and reduce emissions and provide farmers with certainty in the marketplace that comes with RFS integrity.”  READ MORE

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