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If there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are ready to put Scott Pruitt in the past.
Acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler returned to his roots on Wednesday when he testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where he was previously a staff director and an aide to former chairman Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) for years before his decade-long career as a lobbyist. And while some lawmakers still pressed the acting head with questions about his lobbying past as well as the administration's environmental agenda, the panel's members made it clear they were pleased to see Wheeler before them.
Here are some takeaways from Wednesdays' hearing:
1. Right away, there was a stark contrast between Wheeler’s first testimony since taking the helm of the agency and his predecessor's last appearance before the Senate in May before he left the EPA.
That was particularly true for Democrats on the panel. In contrast to how lawmakers pressed Pruitt over his spending and management decisions, the panel's top Democrat in his opening statement flat out said he was pleased the person testifying before the panel was Wheeler and “not his predecessor.”
“When Mr. Wheeler took the helm of the agency all of 25 days ago — it seems like 25 months ago … The Washington Post noted that we were trading an administrator who was known for ‘for sipping organic juice infused with kale' for an acting administrator who collects Coca-Cola memorabilia, ” Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) said, referring to this report from The Post's Juliet Eilperin, Brady Dennis and Josh Dawsey.
“I have something to present to you as we begin this hearing,” Carper said, holding up a Coke bottle with the name “Wheeler” on the side, sparking laughter from the room and a joke from Wheeler that he would need to clear the gift with the EPA’s ethics office. “You will probably need something stronger before we're finished,” Carper added.
Some Democrats on the panel made it plain to Wheeler that they viewed him differently than the scandal-plagued ex-administrator. “I viewed your predecessor’s tenure as one characterized by tawdry personal behavior in office, a desire to do damage to the agency that he led, a flagrant absence of transactional integrity and horrible environmental policies,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said. “I see you as a remedy to three of those four. So in that sense, I welcome you.”
Carper also cited the ethical controversies that finally ran Pruitt out of office. “I’m encouraged that there will be a number of differences between Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Pruitt in the way that they approach this important leadership role. For example, I don’t expect to hear as much as a peep from Mr. Wheeler today about used-mattress shopping or Chick-fil-A or fancy moisturizers,” he said.
“What we do need to hear from Mr. Wheeler today is how he plans to differentiate himself from Mr. Pruitt, and a range of environmental policies that are far more consequential. And how will he repair the significant damage Mr. Pruitt has done to the EPA?”
2. Lawmakers focused their questions for Wheeler largely on policy rather than personal issues. And Wheeler made it clear he would still be carrying out the same policies as Pruitt.
Lawmakers called on Wheeler to discuss his agenda, including a replacement for the Clean Power Plan, fuel efficiency standards, and the nation’s biofuel mandate.
Wheeler told lawmakers Trump had given him three directives when appointing him to be the agency’s acting head: “Clean up the air, clean up the water and provide regulatory relief to help the economy thrive and create more jobs for American workers.”
“I believe we can accomplish all three at the same time and in fact we have already made progress on all three fronts in just the past few weeks” Wheeler said. “We haven’t slowed down, and we haven’t missed a step... We are continuing the president’s agenda posthaste.”
But John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The Energy 202 that Wheeler provided no clear direction on the first two directives he laid out from his boss.
“Mr. Wheeler did not identify any new action the EPA is taking to reduce air pollution or water pollution, to improve air quality or water quality,” he said. “He said at the outset that President Trump gave him personal instructions to clean the air, clean the water … that raises the question of whether he’s defying the president or whether the president’s words are empty.”
Play along & try to ID any new rule or action announced by @EPAAWheeler today that will remove one additional molecule of air pollution or water pollution from the environment, compared to the regulatory status quo.— John Walke (@jwalkenrdc) August 1, 2018
Not the pollution increases from rollbacks, too.
@EPAAWheeler repeats Pruitt rhetoric, prioritizing "certainty": to the states; to regulated industries; & about "risk communication" to the public.— John Walke (@jwalkenrdc) August 1, 2018
Note what's missing, here: the certainty of healthier Americans, reduced air & water pollution, improved air & water quality.
Walke said that overall, Wheeler deviated little from the regulatory rollbacks that were a focus under Pruitt. “He echoed Pruitt’s rhetoric, he expressed support for the rollbacks that were championed by Republican senators and made clear that the new boss is the same as the old boss,” Walke told The Energy 202. “That’s just the same page from the Pruitt playbook.”
He also suggested the “more respectful, calm and less combative” nature of Wheeler’s testimony was in part because the acting administrator, as a former Senate staffer, “knows what effective testimony is,” adding it was something his predecessor did not understand.
3. Wheeler's reception on the Hill is a sign he could take over the agency permanently.
While Democrats have shown little interest in keeping Wheeler atop the EPA, some Republican senators have expressed that they’d be comfortable with Wheeler running the agency for good.
Politico’s Anthony Adragna reported last month that GOP senators also have “little appetite to worry about replacing the scandal-scarred Pruitt this year” with a permanent administrator ahead of midterm elections in the fall. “I’ve known Andy Wheeler for a number of years,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) told Politico. “I think he’ll probably be there, in whatever capacity, as long as he wants to be.”
Yet during Wednesday’s hearing, committee chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) called for Trump to nominate the acting chief for the permanent gig.
“I would encourage President Trump to nominate Andrew Wheeler to be administrator,” Barrasso said. “I believe Andrew Wheeler would make an excellent administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Brady Dennis contributed to this report.
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— Setting the scene: A group of protestors in the hearing room during Wheeler’s testimony held up signs calling the acting head a “Pruitt puppet.” The demonstrators were quickly asked to leave.
From the New York Times's Lisa Friedman:
Protesters holding up "Pruitt Puppet" signs w/ @EPAAWheeler's face asked to leave the hearing room. All very civilized.— Lisa Friedman (@LFFriedman) August 1, 2018
Friends of the Earth took credit for some of Wednesday’s demonstrations:
We are outside @EPAAWheeler’s Senate hearing, calling him out for being a #PruittPuppet for continuing Pruitt’s toxic agenda to pollute our air & water at the request of Big Oil. #WheelerDealer pic.twitter.com/hlKkcojsUd— Friends of the Earth (@foe_us) August 1, 2018
— Fuel-efficiency standards, frozen: The Trump administration approved a plan to halt national fuel-efficiency standards for six years, claiming the proposal will cut back on $2,000 of costs for every new car purchased and reduce 1,000 road deaths a year over the duration of the program, The Post’s Dennis, Juliet Eilperin and Michael Laris report. But they report experts are not so sure about these claims, and note even Wheeler has “privately questioned some of the plan’s analyses and legal arguments” even as he publicly defended it. “Despite the disagreements, the administration is moving forward with its efforts to ease fuel-efficiency standards on cars and light trucks through 2026 and to challenge the right of California and other states to set their own tailpipe standards, according to current and former government officials,” Eilperin, Laris and Dennis write. The proposed rule is set to be released on Thursday.
During Wednesday’s hearing: Wheeler told lawmakers he would prefer to avoid the legal battle California officials have promised if the administration revokes the state’s authority to set emissions standards. “It’s my goal -- it’s the administration’s goal -- to come up with a 50-state solution. We wanted a 50-state solution that does not necessitate preempting California,” he said, adding there are “important goals on highway safety, so we have to make sure those are met.”
— Tariff triumph: Here's at least one business leader who is happy with the Trump administration’s tariff policy. Lakshmi N. Mittal, the chief executive of the world’s largest steelmaker, ArcelorMittal, said Wednesday the company’s profits had jumped 41 percent to $1.9 billion in the second quarter on $20 billion in sales, the New York Times reports. “The industry has quite changed,” Mittal told the Times. “Trade actions in various countries have really helped in structurally changing the landscape of the steel industry.” “The remarks, and the earnings, stand in stark contrast to fears voiced by companies and analysts in the United States and elsewhere over Mr. Trump’s protectionist push,” the Times reports
Also: Despite the fact that the White House has admitted its trade war will hurt farmers, Trump’s hope for patience from one of the most loyal parts of his base seems to be working, The Post’s JM Rieger reports. A recent CBS News/YouGov poll found 42 percent of “people in jobs that directly depend on agriculture or farming” approve of the president’s handling of trade, and a third of those in agriculture say “dislike the president’s approach” but are “glad he is trying something,” rather than doing nothing. “But as industries increasingly blame Trump’s trade war for layoffs and shrinking profits, the question is whether, or when, Trump’s base will turn on him as a result,” Rieger writes.
— A Zinke-linked deal in Whitefish: The Interior’s inspector general will investigate Secretary Ryan Zinke’s plans to open up a microbrewery in his Montana hometown and probe whether he called on oil services giant Halliburton to help make it happen, Politico reports. “The Interior Department IG's office announced in late July that it is investigating Zinke’s dealings with [Halliburton chair David Lesar], a purview that ethics specialists say will include questions about the brewery," per the report. “Ethics rules bar officials from using their official contacts to set up ‘nests’ for their post-government lives, and the microbrewery was a focus of both the ethics watchdogs and the House Democrats who requested the investigation after POLITICO first reported on Zinke’s links to Lesar.”
— A spending bill for EPA and Interior moves forward: Senate lawmakers on Wednesday passed 92-6 a “minibus” spending bill to boost the EPA and Interior’s 2019 fiscal year budget to higher than what the president had called for. It’s the first time the chamber has passed an Interior-EPA measure since 2010, E&E News reports. The $152.4 billion spending bill combines four measures from the Interior-EPA, Agriculture, Transportation-Housing and Urban Development, and Financial Services-General Government spending bills. The bill sets up a potential fight over the final version as it now heads to the House. "We're going to have to deal with our colleagues on the other side, the House of Representatives, as we move into conference. But you can't get to conference until you've take the first step" Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), said following its passage, per E&E.
— Suit claims bias in wildlife protection council: A new lawsuit filed by the Democracy Forward Foundation on behalf of environmental and animal rights groups is charging that the Trump administration has filled the International Wildlife Conservation Council with “hunting enthusiasts” and “politically-connected donors” who they worry will make policy decisions in favor of groups that will hunt “imperiled animals” for profit, The Post’s Erin B. Logan reports. “It’s very obvious [the 17-member council has] an intent to undermine some of the protections put in place” Zak Smith, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The Post, referring to the council’s members. Smith said the suit was mostly cautionary, Logan writes, adding “advocates are still worried about the potential sway that the biased’ council might have — as advisory recommendations are ‘looked at more closely and are likely to be readily adopted,’ Smith said.“
— Three cheers for Trump’s science and technology nominee: Following the news that Trump will nominate meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier to lead the Office of Science and Technology Policy, The Post’s Angela Fritz reports that (not so surprisingly), the weather and climate community have been applauding the move. Droegemeier, now the vice president of research at the University of Oklahoma, got his meteorology degree there before completing his PhD in atmospheric science at the University of Illinois. Fritz has compiled a list of the reactions from fellow meteorologists as well as from climate scientists, but here’s just one animated example via John Morales, chief meteorologist at NBC-6 in Miami: “Be still my beating heart! A *good* pick for the White House Office of Science and Technology! And a meteorologist to boot."
— Man it’s a hot one: So it happened. California’s Death Valley ended last month by breaking its own record for the hottest month ever measured on planet Earth, averaging 108.1 degrees over both day and night, a half-degree up from the record it set last year, The Post’s Ian Livingston and Jason Samenow report.
— All this heat will cause more deaths, study finds: Heat wave-related deaths could spike 2,000 percent in some areas of the world by the year 2080 because of climate change, according to a new study published in the online journal PLOS Medicine. “Future heatwaves in particular will be more frequent, more intense and will last much longer,” study author Yuming Guo, associate professor at Australia’s Monash University said in a statement to Reuters. “If we cannot find a way to mitigate the climate change (reduce the heatwave days) and help people adapt to heatwaves, there will be a big increase of heatwave-related deaths in the future.”
— First U.S. offshore wind farm pledges major savings: The developers behind the first commercial offshore wind farm in the country said Wednesday that electricity customers in Massachusetts will save about $1.4 billion over two decades. according to Bloomberg.Avangrid Inc. and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners said the 800-megawatt project that sits 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard will be about 18 percent cheaper than other alternatives and is expected to provide power that is projected to cut monthly power bills between .1 to 1.5 percent,
— The road ahead for Tesla: The electric automaker posted yet another loss Wednesday, reporting $743 million in losses but noting it was lower than analysts’ estimates of about $900 million and that it was nearing profitability, The Post’s Drew Harwell reports. “But its cash burn extended a money-losing streak for chief Elon Musk during one of the company’s most challenging years in history.” The company had pledged to be profitable before the second half of the year, a goal that inched closer following Wednesday’s report. But Musk’s note to shareholders did not seem despondent about that goal. “It took 15 years to execute on our initial goal to produce an affordable, long-range electric vehicle that can also be highly profitable,” he wrote, per Harwell. “In the second half of 2018, we expect, for the first time in our history, to become both sustainably profitable and cash flow positive.”
Also: Musk apologized during the second-quarter earnings call by apologizing for “bad manners” during the last earnings call, then taking the first questions in the question-and-answer period from the two analysts with him he had been harshest, Bloomberg reports. “It was a major mea culpa to Wall Street by a billionaire who in recent weeks called a British cave diver in the Thai rescue mission a pedophile and portrayed a former battery factory employee as a saboteur,” Bloomberg noted. “Investors responded very positively: Tesla shares surged as much as 12 percent in after-hours trading.”
— Oil watch: A Wall Street Journal survey of nine investment banks has found banks are eyeing oil price gains for the 10th successive month in July amid a drop in global supply and specifically a drop in crude from Iran as a result of sanctions. “Brent crude is expected to average $73.65 a barrel this year… West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. standard, is projected to average just above $68 a barrel,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Both estimates mark increases of roughly $2 on the forecasts from June’s survey. The revised forecasts come amid continued volatility in global oil markets. Investors are weighing bullish factors that include potential disruptions to Iranian crude exports against more bearish elements, including a ramp-up in production by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and Russia.”
- The Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment holds a discussion on the role of science in public policy.
— Watch this once-injured bald eagle be released back into the wild after rehabilitation in Montana: