Scott Pruitt has left the building. Many are gladdened by his exit from the top job at EPA. Some say it took too long. But the people who support the biofuels industry, clean energy and efforts to address climate change also know that Pruitt’s departure does not end the concerns the agency has generated under his leadership.
Andrew Wheeler, Pruitt’s deputy administrator, has stepped up to take charge of the agency for now. And though his is an “interim” appointment, Wheeler’s tenure will likely last at least beyond the mid-term elections in November.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has asked for a pause for consideration, stating that time is needed to “more fully understand the damage done to the RFS (Renewable Fuel Standard) by Pruitt and what can be done to make it right.” Also giving GOP Senate members pause is what is expected to be a brutal, largely partisan confirmation fight over President Trump’s nominee to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, U.S. appellate court Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
Unlike Pruitt, Wheeler is very much a Washington insider. He worked at EPA in the early 1990s in both the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. He later worked for Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), an oil-state lawmaker, and went on to serve as staff director at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. More recently, Wheeler, an attorney, worked as a lobbyist, representing, among others, coal interests, opposing climate change policy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission regulation.
Despite those entries on his resumé, Wheeler told the Washington Post in an interview this week that he believes climate change is real and humans are playing a role. While his contention is that Congress has failed to give EPA sufficient legal authority to address climate change, his acceptance of the dangers it poses and its source offers hope that Wheeler will pursue a more moderate approach.
Wheeler has also promised a wider degree of transparency at the agency compared to his predecessor – a vow that the biofuels industry will press, given Pruitt’s predilection for covertly granting “hardship” waivers, some retroactively, which relieve refineries of their blending obligations under the RFS. It’s a practice that has cost the biofuels industry more than 2 billion gallons in lost blending volumes. Pruitt, who declined to reallocate those lost biofuels to other, more able refiners, was widely condemned by the biofuels industry and its allies in Congress, who claim he violated Trump’s vow of support for the industry and the RFS.
With the 2019 RVO proposal now undergoing public comment, the opportunity is there for Wheeler to step in, restore the lost volumes and do the right thing. Biofuels, which offer significant emission reductions compared to their petroleum counterparts, are among the solutions from the land available to address the changing conditions contributing to volatile weather patterns, which include drought (and attending wildfires), flooding and destructively high winds.
While he says he is obligated to pursue the president’s agenda, Wheeler may present an opportunity to pursue a more vigorous Clean Power Plan than the one submitted to a federal appeals court by EPA under Pruitt, which, in turn, replaced the more stringent plan pursued by the Obama administration as part of its emissions-reduction strategy. Wheeler can be expected to more strongly acknowledge the obligation the courts have given the government to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, though to what degree is uncertain.
There is also speculation that as EPA chief, Wheeler will modify a proposal now under consideration by the White House to roll back regulations aimed at GHG emissions from cars and light trucks. Automakers have opposed significant weakening of the emission standards set by the Obama administration, particularly to avoid a confrontation with California and that state’s more stringent rules governing automotive GHGs. And unlike Pruitt, Wheeler is thought to be more receptive to high-octane, low-carbon fuels that use ethanol blends to make future engines cleaner and more efficient.
Wheeler is also thought to be more receptive to the science that supports EPA regulations, reversing a trend by Pruitt to reject the research upon which the agency bases its rules. And in remarks to EPA employees Tuesday, he said: “America’s blessed with abundant natural resources resource we use to fuel and feed the world. We will continue to protect and steward these resources for the benefit of ourselves and our posterity.” The new EPA chief’s openness and commitment must be explored by proponents of land management practices that have been proven to make farming operations more productive, more resilient and more capable of offering healthier soil, cleaner water, greater wildlife habitat and a wide range of other ecosystem services.