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The Energy 202: House Republicans divided on whether to turn up the heat on Scott Pruitt


THE LIGHTBULB

Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt is headed to Capitol Hill for the first time since the start of a relentless string of news stories about his spending and personnel decisions at the agency. 

Democrats are eager to grill Pruitt about the ethics controversies, which include the agency installing a $43,000 soundproof phone booth, granting high raises to favored aides and keeping a round-the-clock security detail for Pruitt’s personal trips.

And House Republicans? They’re divided on how deeply to dive into Pruitt’s ethical troubles.

Nominally, the two back-to-back hearings on Thursday are supposed to be about the EPA’s annual budget. While many Senate Republicans are calling this week for greater scrutiny of Pruitt’s management, many GOP House members actually holding the hearings said they want to stay on topic.

“This is a budget hearing,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the interior, environment and related agencies, before which Pruitt will testify later today. “Some people might ask that, but I’m not going to do that. I’m going to talk about the budget.”

Other Republicans may have fewer reservations about bringing up the slew of ethical issues that have dominated headlines recently. 

John Shimkus (R-Ill.) chair of the the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the environment, hinted that some Republican members will, like Democrats, bring up Pruitt’s reported behavior at today’s hearing. 

“You’ll see a lot of members talk policy issues,” Shimkus said, “but I also think you’ll see members, even Republican members, talk about obviously the laundry list of stories.”

One such Energy and Commerce member is Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), who said he and other lawmakers will be looking at whether the administrator’s spending was more “a one-off” — like the $139,000 doors installed in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s office.

“Like, Ryan Zinke’s doors? I wouldn’t have done that, but whatever. Sometimes a bad headline’s a bad headline,” Costello said. “But the sound booth thing, I don’t get that. [Pruitt] flies coach when he pays, and he flies first class if they pay? It doesn’t sit well, and it undermines his credibility.”

Scrutinizing Pruitt is difficult for some elected Republicans because they feel they finally have an EPA administrator cut from the same conservative cloth as they are. Even during past GOP administrations, they felt EPA leaders before Pruitt were too moderate. 

In recent weeks, several allies have counseled Pruitt. “I just said, you know, ‘Listen, just for what it’s worth, we need you. We need you,’ ” Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said he told Pruitt. “I didn’t tell him to cool it. I just told him, ‘We really need you.’ ” Cramer is running for the Senate in November and currently sits on the Energy and Commerce environment panel. 

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), another member of that subcommittee, suggested Pruitt’s position as a conservative EPA administrator justified some of the costs.

“He’s had a lot of death threats, so I don’t have a problem with his security cost,” Barton said. “I don’t really have a major problem with his telecommunication setup. It’s a difficult job to be the EPA administrator when you’re a Republican. The stakeholder groups tend to be more liberal, more activist, and that’s a tough crowd for a conservative Republican.”

Yet Pruitt’s home-state ally Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), an Appropriations interior subcommittee member, warned Pruitt last week that he is in for a “pretty rough” day. 

“If you haven’t talked to the chairman yet, I would recommend that you do that,” Cole said he advised Pruitt. “And frankly I would also recommend, if you have the time, that you call every member of the subcommittee, Democrat and Republican alike. Give them the chance to tell you what they’re concerned about, maybe even answer some of these in private.”

Pruitt appears to have heeded part of this advice. He called Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the full House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), chairman of the Appropriations interior subcommittee. The administrator also contacted some lawmakers from both parties Wednesday to inform them that their districts had received agency grants to clean up former industrial sites, known as brownfields. But he did not contact Walden’s and Calvert’s Democratic counterparts, Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.) and Betty McCollum (Minn.).

Behind the scenes, EPA staffers drafted a set of talking points titled “hot topics,” first reported by the New York Times and confirmed by the Post. According to the document, Pruitt will assure representatives that he now flies coach and that others were responsible for giving two of his close aides from Oklahoma substantial pay raises. 

But shifting blame may not sit well with some Republicans. “I’m a West Point guy, so leadership is defined by the ability to get your team to do what you want them to do, not because you force them but you lead them,” said Shimkus, the Energy and Commerce subcommittee chair. “You’re responsible for all your unit does or fails to do.”

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders are gearing up to scrutinize Pruitt. “I’m going to ask, ‘How can you continue to be in charge of the EPA and carry on its mission given the culture of corruption and investigations and the ethics violations?’ ” Pallone said. “My Republican colleagues on the committee have not been willing seriously criticize him.”

But even some Democrats suggested they planned to stay on the topic of the budget, since EPA’s inspector general is already investigating some of Pruitt’s spending. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (Ohio) said she may ask about Pruitt’s phone booth or flights, but not about a New York Times account of an unusual housing deal Pruitt made while an Oklahoma state senator.

“There seems to be a lot of ethics issues surrounding his appearance, and I’m not sure our committee is the proper one to come before,” said Kaptur, a member of the Appropriations interior subcommittee. Kaptur suggested that other panels, such as the subcommittee on Government Operations, should also hold hearings on Pruitt. 

Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), who is on the Energy and Commerce environment subcommittee, agreed. “I’m going to stay on policy. I don’t think we have jurisdiction.” 

Yet McKinley said other committees should take on the issue — and suggested that Thursday should not be Pruitt’s only tough day on Capitol Hill. “Oh, of course they should,” he said. “Why not?”

Mike DeBonis, Juliet Eilperin, Dennis Brady and David Weigel contributed to this report.

POWER PLAYS

— Is the White House starting to abandon Pruitt? After weeks of praising Pruitt’s work, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her deputy, Hogan Gidley, told reporters the administrator will have to answer for his actions.

During a briefing Wednesday, The Post’s Ashley Parker asked Sanders to “explain why he still has a job in the president’s Cabinet and also how his behavior is in keeping with the values of draining the swamp.”

“Again, we’re evaluating these concerns, and we expect the EPA administrator to answer for them, and we’ll keep you posted,” Sanders said. The Post’s Callum Borchers describes her response as a “chilly nondefense.”

Earlier Wednesday in an interview on NPR, Gidley said the “president and the White House are aware of these issues and these stories, that they raise some serious concerns, there’s no question about that.” Gidley added: “The EPA and, quite frankly, Mr. Pruitt, are going to have to answer those questions in short order.”

— Back to policy: Scientists are not happy with a new proposal at the EPA that seeks to limit research the agency can use when making policy to studies where underlying data is publicly available. “Leaders of the scientific community expressed outrage, saying that such a restriction, which must go through a 30-day comment period and will probably face legal challenges, would suppress solid science,” The Post’s Joel Achenbach explains.

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— We won’t always have Paris, but… French President Emmanuel Macron again on Wednesday brought up the double-C word — climate change —  during an address to Congress, taking aim at the Trump agenda and the U.S. president’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord. “By polluting the oceans, not mitigating CO2 emissions and destroying our biodiversity we are killing our planet,” he said during an address to Congress. “Let us face it, there is no planet B.”

  • Democrats gave Macron a standing ovation as he signaled hope the United States would reenter the Paris agreement. “Let us work together in order to make our planet great again and create new jobs and new opportunities, ones that guard the Earth. One day, the United States will come back and join the Paris agreement and I am sure we can work together,” Macron said.
  • Republicans were less thrilled. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) told Business Insider he took issue with how the accords were written. “I think there’s a recognition that the climate accords are symbolic,” Cassidy said. “It’s given a free pass to the world’s largest polluters.” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) was more pointed: 

— Coal magnate’s contradictions: West Virginia Senate hopeful Don Blankenship, who spent a year in prison for his involvement in a deadly mining explosion, is running a campaign of contradictions, writes the New York Times:

  • In response to attack ads against him, Blankenship referenced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. He accused McConnell of having a conflict of interest related to Chao’s father, whom he called a “a wealthy Chinaperson.” “I have an issue when the father-in-law is, you know, is a wealthy Chinaperson and there’s a lot of connections to some of the brass, if you will, in China,” he said in an interview on a West Virginia radio show.
  • Blankenship has previously said he’s considered moving to China, or acquiring Chinese citizenship.
  • Blankenship has claimed in court papers his primary residents in a massive six-bedroom, eight-bath Spanish style mansion near Las Vegas. He also owns a residence in West Virginia, per the report.

Conclusion, per the Times: “The emergence of a former coal boss with a criminal record as a potential Senate nominee seems partly an expression of many West Virginia voters’ desire to poke a thumb in the eye of the Washington establishment, Republicans very much included.”

— Rebuilding the grid: Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is soliciting new public and private investors that could help rebuild its energy grid. “Puerto Rico already had antiquated energy systems. When the biggest devastating event in the modern history of the United States hit our island, we could anticipate that is was going to be a major disaster,” Rosselló said in a Wednesday interview with CNBC. “We think we have a great opportunity to leapfrog into energy 2.0.”

— The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has now one a year and 96 days without a permanent leader: The weather agency has never gone this long without a confirmed head after a new administration took office, The Post’s Jason Samenow reports. More than six months have passed since Trump nominated Barry Myers, the AccuWeather chief executive to the post. “Stymied by alleged conflicts of interest and lacking a formal science background, Myers’s ability to get the votes needed for approval in the Senate is unclear, several individuals familiar with his confirmation process said,” Samenow writes.

THERMOMETER

— The effort to save red wolves in the wild is failing: According to a five-year review of an endangered species program that was established to save the wolf species, a “colony of red wolves that was reintroduced in North Carolina in 1987 is failing because of poor management and fierce state opposition from game officials and hunters who are killing it,” The Post’s Darryl Fears writes. The wolf population there grew to an estimated 130 in 2006 before dropping to about 40, “a decline more rapid than even the worst-case scenarios had predicted.” 

— More than a thousand tropical islands could become “uninhabitable” by the middle of the century or sooner as a result of rising sea levels, which could put at risk critical U.S. military assets, The Post’s Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis report. The rising seas will not only inundate the low-lying islands entirely, but they will first lead to massive waves that crash onto the shores, potentially contaminating the drinking water supply, according to new research that was supported by the military.

“This study provided a better understanding of how atoll islands may be affected by a changing climate,” Defense Department spokeswoman Heather Babb said in a statement. “While no decisions have been made about Department of Defense activities on the islands based on the study, DOD continues to focus on ensuring its installations and infrastructure are resilient to a wide range of threats. The department’s understanding of rising sea levels will enable the military services and agencies in affected areas to make informed decisions on how to continue to execute their missions.”

OIL CHECK

— Venezuela unravels: Chevron has evacuated its executives from Venezuela after two employees were arrested there last week for refusing to sign a contract with a state-owned oil company. After the arrest, the company asked its other employees to avoid the company’s facilities that are part of its project with Venezuela’s oil firm, according to Reuters.

— Virginia governor’s pipeline tightrope: Ralph Northam, the state’s recently elected Democratic governor, warned it’s “unlawful” for a mother and daughter who are protesting a natural gas pipeline to sit in trees and block the pipeline, per The Post’s Gregory S. Schneider. He also cited concerns for the 61-year-old mother’s health. Northam, however, stopped short of saying he would call on state police to do anything to settle the standoff. “I want them to be safe and so we want to make sure that they have food and water,” Northam said in a Wednesday Facebook Live interview with WTOP radio station. “You know, the First Amendment is important but also the safety of individuals in Virginia is important so we hope that there’s going to be a resolution to this in the near future.”

— One of the GOP tax plans many unintended consequences: The new tax rules could force pipeline owners led by Enbridge Inc. and Williams Cos. to refund as much as $18.5 billion to drillers, utilities and an airline, Bloomberg News reports. Here’s why: “Natural gas conduits include the cost of future tax payments in customer fees,” per the report. “Because the Trump administration lowered the tax rate 21 percent from 35 percent earlier this year, pipelines have effectively been overcharging customers.”

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Center for Energy Science and Policy holds the second annual Mason Energy Symposium.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds an oversight hearing on offshore energy revenue sharing or gulf producing states.
  • EPA chief Scott Pruitt will testify on the EPA’s 2019 budget request before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment.
  • Scott Pruitt testifies before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.
  • The United States Energy Association holds an event on The Plains CO2 Reduction Partnership.
  • The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation holds an event on “Closing the Innovation Gap in Grid-Scale Energy Storage.”
  • The Center for New American Security holds an event on geopolitical risks and opportunities for lower oil price era.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs will hold a legislative hearing on various bills.

Coming Up

  • Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment holds a lunch and learn event on Friday.

EXTRA MILEAGE

— Cabinet selfie: 

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