Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt testified before Congress on Thursday for the first time since news broke that he rented a condo from the wife of an energy lobbyist for only $50 a night.
And for the first time since news broke that Pruitt gave his favored aides major raises over objections from the White House.
And for the first time since news broke that he reassigned or demoted other EPA employees after they raised concerns about his spending and management.
In short, there was a lot to talk about.
But House Republicans, for the most part, wanted their Democratic counterparts furious about Pruitt’s mounting ethical troubles — “You are unfit to hold public office,” as Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) put it — to stick to the nominal reason Pruitt testified in front of two back-to-back House hearings.
That would be the EPA’s annual budget.
Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), a member of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the environment, said it was “shameful today that this hearing has turned into a personal attack hearing.” David B. McKinley (R-W.Va.), vice chair of the subcommittee, described the allegations against Pruitt as “a classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism.”
Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), another member of that panel who is in a tough race to unseat Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, piled on by telling Pruitt that “the greatest sin you’ve committed, if any, is you’ve actually done what President Trump ran on, won on and what he’s commissioned you to do.”
And Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), another subcommittee member famous for apologizing to the chief executive of BP in 2010 for the way his company was treated by the U.S. government, told Pruitt: “You’re not the first person to be the victim, for lack of a better term, of Washington politics.”
The rhetoric from most Republicans highlights the lengths to which the GOP will defend the uncompromisingly conservative EPA administrator.
But outside the hearing room, some Republican members understood why Democrats took a critical tone with Pruitt. After all, they had done the same thing to those working for President Barack Obama.
“Look, I’m not begrudging them for doing that. To some extent, that’s their job,” Barton said while walking back to his office. “When the president was a Democrat, we did something similar. So I’m not crying foul ball. That’s just Washington politics. But somebody on our side has to defend him.”
“The questioning is designed to be ‘Gotcha,’ I get it,” Cramer said after leaving the hearing. “I’m not innocent myself with previous administrations, I suppose, if we’re all going to be honest.”
Few House Republicans openly rebuked Pruitt for his ethics issues. Among the ones who did were Rep. Ryan Costello (Pa.), who is retiring after the state Supreme Court threw out a Republican gerrymander there, and Rep. Leonard Lance (N.J.), who was one of just a dozen House Republicans to vote against the GOP tax bill and is facing a tough reelection in a northern New Jersey district that the Cook Political Report has labeled a “Republican toss up.”
On local issues, Republicans took a tougher stance — Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), for instance, pressed Pruitt about his “lack of support” for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter (R-Ga.) told the EPA administrator “your staff was completely unprepared” to discuss the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project with sailors who came to the District.
That shift in tone on such concerns was not lost on Democrats, including Pallone, the Energy and Commerce Committee’s top Democrat.
“Generally speaking, they’re just soft-pedaling, hoping the hearing’s over,” Pallone said. “They’re not really hitting him hard or really asking any tough questions, unless it actually relates to something that’s happening in their district that they care about. Then they’ll criticize.”
|You are reading The Energy 202, our must-read tipsheet on energy and the environment.|
|Not a regular subscriber?|
— More on Pruitt’s day on the Hill, from the The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis’s full report:
- Pruitt’s most significant admission was acknowledging he was aware of the controversial pay raises given to his aides. After being pressed by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), Pruitt did not deny authorizing the raises and said, “Those were delegated to Mr. Jackson,” referring to his Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson. “I was not aware of the amount, and I was not aware of the bypassing that was going on.” His remarks, under oath, contradict an earlier statement during an interview with Fox News on April 4. “I’m concerned that you have no idea what is going on in your name at your agency, especially on an issue already under IG investigation,” Tonko told Pruitt, referring to the inspector general’s probe into the matter. “I was aware of one of those individuals” receiving a raise, Pruitt later said in response to Rep. Costello.
As pointed out by The Post’s Ashley Parker:
“I have nothing to hide,” Pruitt says as, under oath, he admits to lying about green-lighting raises for favorite EPA staffers.
— Ashley Parker (@AshleyRParker) April 26, 2018
- Pruitt denied prior knowledge of the price tag for the soundproof booth installed in his office. “I was not aware of the approval of the $43,000,” Pruitt said in response to a question from Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.). “And if I had known about it, Congressman, I would not have approved it.”
- He otherwise repeatedly blamed members of his staff for some of the myriad expenditures for which Pruitt has been criticized. He also denied charges from former staffers arguing they faced retaliation for questioning the administrator’s spending on travel.
- He specifically blamed policy critics and Trump administration opponents for the controversies surrounding him. “Those who have attacked the EPA and attacked me are doing so because they want to derail the president’s agenda. I’m not going to let that happen.” Pruitt said. “A lie doesn’t become true just because it appears on the front page of the newspaper.”
- During the hearings, Pruitt read aloud some of the threats he said were made against him that served to justify some of the agency’s security decisions and were included in a “threat assessment” he said came from the EPA’s inspector general. But the internal watchdog is disputing the memo as coming from its office. “The memo that [Pruitt] read from was not from Inspector General Elkins,” a spokesperson for the inspector general told ABC News. “It was an internal memo from Assistant IG for Investigations Patrick Sullivan. It was leaked without authorization. It will be released in the near future as part of an OIG FOIA response.”
- Inside one of the hearing rooms, protesters held signs referring to Pruitt as “Mr. Corruption.” Capitol Police also warned the protesters to take signs down, per the Hill, which they did. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) threatened to have the demonstrators removed: “I have some magic words that will then cause you to have to leave,” he said. “I do not want to say that.”
— If the United States and France can’t agree on the Paris climate agreement, they can at least agree on this: Energy Secretary Rick Perry signed a joint agreement on nuclear and clean energy with France during French President Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to Washington. “Today’s signing demonstrates the shared commitment of France and the United States to nuclear power as an affordable, safe and secure source of clean energy,” Perry said. The agency said the signing “ushers in a new era” of research and development cooperation between the two nations.
— Another Perry in energy: A private investment firm run by Rick Perry’s son has notified the Securities and Exchange Commission that it is looking for investors for a new energy fund, McClatchy reported…
….which raises questions about whether the son’s company would benefit from the father’s policy decisions. “Watchdog groups have two worries about situations like this,” per the report. “One is that existing investment rules allow for little public disclosure about private funds like Grey Rock, making possible conflicts of interest nearly impossible to spot. Neither the names of the investors nor their individual stakes are shared with the SEC, which requires just minimal information on the number of investors and sum of investment money under management … The other concern is that conflict-of-interest rules for politicians extend only to spouses and young kids, not grown ones.”
— Out at the Interior Department: Bryan Rice, the director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, has resigned just six months after he was appointed to the role. “The resignation comes roughly two weeks after the agency’s internal watchdog concluded that poor Interior Department staff record keeping made it impossible to determine if the reassignment of dozens of senior agency staff last year was legal,” HuffPost reported.
— It’s cool, it’s normal: In the two years since global temperature anomalies hit record peaks in 2016, things have cooled off. NASA reports the first quarter of 2018 has been the fourth-warmest, compared with 2015, 2016 and 2017 (and tied with 2010).
Matt Rogers breaks down for The Post why this is normal: “The world has not seen the last of global warming. The long-term upward trend in temperatures is due to man-made fossil fuel emissions, but natural processes that impact global temperature — like El Niño — still play a role. Sometimes they make things warmer and sometimes they make things cooler.”
— A twister-less season: Oklahoma, which typically has the third-most tornadoes each year, has not had a single one in 2018. The longest the state has gone without a tornado was from the start of the year until April 26, 1992, a record hit on Thursday.
Here’s the science explaining why, from The Post’s Ian Livingston: “To form, tornadoes need warm, humid weather and deep troughs in the jet stream, and that has been lacking across the Plains so far in 2018. This year, we’ve seen cold front after front after front punt moisture deep into the tropics. These cold fronts have been driven south by unseasonably chilly air that generally dominates our part of the Northern Hemisphere throughout late winter and into early spring.”
— An explosion at a refinery in northwest Wisconsin left at least 11 people injured and forced evacuations of area homes, schools and a hospital, per the Associated Press. Authorities said the Husk Energy oil refinery exploded on Thursday morning in Superior, a town that borders Minnesota. A three-mile radius around the refinery was evacuated. By Thursday evening, the fire was out and authorities said people were allowed back into their homes.
— How will “Mexico First” affect U.S. oil? Oil companies in the United States are worried about whether the potential winner of Mexico’s presidential election will move to reduce imports of American gasoline. “The leading candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, wants to reverse policies that have tied a knot between Mexico and the United States in recent years in energy production and consumption,” the New York Times reports. Right now, Mexican oil is shipped to the United States to be refined into gasoline and other products, some of which are then shipped back to Mexico for consumption. Obrador, instead, wants Mexico to produce its transportation fuel domestically.
— The United States is on track to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil exporter next year, Citigroup predicted this week in an investor note, according to Bloomberg News. U.S. production surges due to the fracking boom as the Middle Eastern kingdom and other OPEC members curb output in an effort to raise the price of oil. Exports from the United States rose to a record 8.3 million barrels a day last week, compared with Saudi Arabia’s 9.3 million barrels in January, according to the bank.
— The increasing prices of oil are also boosting expenses for companies that have “grown used to low energy costs since crude’s 2014 tumble,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “In response, some companies are looking to pass on the costs to their customers, which would push inflation higher. That, in turn, could slow growth and weigh on an already vulnerable stock market.”
- Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment holds a lunch and learn event.
— In case you were wondering: This is what you would see before being eaten by a crocodile.