The Energy 202: Scott Pruitt came closer than ever to admitting mistakes. Democrats say it's not enough.

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THE LIGHTBULB

Scott Pruitt came closer than ever to admitting he has made poor choices while running the Environmental Protection Agency.

But for Democrats eager to give Pruitt the boot, that admission was far from good enough. 

On Wednesday, Pruitt endured Round 3 of his tangle with congressional Democrats. This time, the venue was the Senate Appropriations environmental subcommittee. Last month, Pruitt gave back-to-back testimonies to two House panels.

“There have been decisions over the last 16 or so months that, as I look back on those decisions, I would not make the same decisions again,” Pruitt told senators Wednesday, without specifying which choices he had in mind.

The regret makes sense given the grief Pruitt has weathered over his spending and personnel decisions since the start of the new year. Ostensibly, all three of those hearings were supposed to be about the EPA's budget. But Democrats chose to focus on the number of ethical questions surrounding Pruitt, which include his penchant for taking first-class flights, living in a condo owned by the family of an energy lobbyist and granting raises to two favored staffers despite White House objections. 

There are so many federal investigations into Pruitt's actions — by the EPA's inspector general, by congressional committees, by the White House — that no one can even agree on the exact count. As The Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin explained on Twitter:

During the two House subcommittee hearings last months, Pruitt laid blamed more squarely on the shoulders of his subordinates. Then, Pruitt repeatedly faulted staff for spending decisions.

This time, even though Pruitt seemed to briefly acknowledge some shortcomings when asked by the Senate subcommittee's chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), he ducked and weaved when pressed for specifics about how certain decisions were made. 

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) asked whether his staff halted the release of a study on water contamination, as Politico reported this week. The EPA chief said he was “not aware that there had been some holding back.”

And when Tom Udall of New Mexico, the Senate panel's top Democrat, asked Pruitt whether he instructed EPA agents to turn on emergency lights and sirens as they drove him around Washington, Pruitt again said he did not “recall.”

“Did your security detail use sirens while you were in the car for nonemergencies? Yes or no?” Udall asked the EPA chief.

Pruitt did not give the yes-or-no answer Udall sought. “There are policies in that governs the use of lights,” he said. “Those policies were followed to the best of my knowledge by each of the agents that serve me.”

“Okay, here we go,” Udall interjected, clearly unsatisfied with the answer.

Eventually, Pruitt said, “I don’t recall that happening.”

As Eilperin and Brady Dennis wrote in their report on the hearing: “Former employees have told The Washington Post and other media that the administrator urged his protective detail to put both on to speed through traffic and that the initial head of his protective detail, Eric Weese, was reassigned after objecting to this practice.”

And during the hearing, Udall cited an email sent by Pruitt's former security chief, Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta. In the message, revealed in a letter sent by Senate Democrats to the EPA's inspector general, Perrotta clearly relays that Pruitt “encourages the use” of lights and sirens.

After the hearing, the panel's Democrats held a news briefing at which they rendered a verdict.

“Today Administrator Pruitt had an opportunity to clear up a lot of the issues that have been raised,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said, “and in my view his responses just dug himself an even bigger hole.” 

POWER PLAYS

— Here's more from the Pruitt hearing:

  • Pruitt denied a member of his media team shopped around a negative story about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in order to deflect attention away from the EPA. “We've investigated that with the gentleman in question,” Pruitt said, also telling lawmakers that his staff has been in contact with Zinke’s office about it.
  • Pruitt confirmed that a defense fund had been set up to help him with the legal fees associated with his various ethics and spending controversies. “It’s been set up,” Pruitt said in response to a question from Van Hollen. He noted he was not involved with the fund, and that the fund does not accept anonymous donations. “I don’t accept donations. I don’t solicit donations. That’s done by attorneys and others,” he said. The fund was first reported in the New York Times.
  • Indeed, the administrator has hired defense lawyer Paul Rauser, co-founder of the firm Aegis Law Group, to advise him amid his dozen investigations, Politico reports. Rauser has been working with Pruitt for several weeks, and has been spotted at the agency’s headquarters.  
  • Pruitt dodged a question from Udall about whether the administrator supports special counsel Robert S. Mueller III completing his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. After hesitating initially, he said it is important for investigators to provide prosecutors with complete information to make informed decisions. “As you know, the right answer is ‘yes,’ ” Udall said. “Whenever there is an investigation ongoing, a president or Rudolph Giuliani or anybody else shouldn’t be interfering in that investigation, putting time limits on it or anything else.”
  • The day's best zinger: Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) dismissed the administrator’s justification for needing to fly first class. “What a silly reason; nobody even knows who you are,” the senator told Pruitt.
  • The scene: A small group of protesters holding “FIRE HIM” signs sat behind Pruitt during the hearing.

— Elsewhere on the Hill: Heidi King, the nominee to lead the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, declined to say whether climate change is caused by people. During a hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, King was asked about climate change by Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.). Here’s just a bit of the exchange, reported by The Post’s Michael Laris:

Hassan: And I’m going to ask you, do you agree that human-caused climate change is real and needs to be addressed? There is overwhelming data and science, and there is a vast group of scientific work that says that it does.

King: I agree that it’s very important for experts to speak on the issue. I apologize, I’m not a climate scientist. But I have great respect for the discipline and will listen to —

Hassan: And Ms. King, I will thank you for that. I’m not a climate scientist either, and I am very comfortable saying that the overwhelming amount of evidence that I read and have read over the course of, both as a private citizen and a public servant, not only suggests, but confirms that climate change is real. And I’m a little bit concerned, and I think other people will be too, that you seem unwilling to acknowledge that the evidence is there. So thank you. We’ll continue this conversation. Thank you Mr. Chairman.

King: Thank you.

— Who paid for Pence’s Colts tickets? According to a financial disclosure released Wednesday, oil tycoon Forrest Lucas paid for Vice President Pence to attend an Indianapolis Colts game last year, USA Today reports. The vice president received two tickets worth $774 for the October game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Pence didn't get to see much football with the tickets; he theatrically walked out of the game after some players knelt during the national anthem.

THERMOMETER

— Someone, somewhere, is making a banned chemical: Emissions of a ozone-depleting chemical called CFC-11 have climbed 25 percent since 2012, according to a new study published in the journal Nature. The discovery seems likely to prompt an international investigation to find the mystery polluter, The Post’s Chris Mooney reports. CFC-11 and other pollutants that eat away at Earth's protective ozone layer were supposed to be phased out under the 1987 Montreal Protocol. “I’ve been making these measurements for more than 30 years, and this is the most surprising thing I’ve seen,” said Stephen Montzka, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “I was astounded by it, really.”

— Human-driven water movement: A 14-year NASA mission has found there has been a significant redistribution of freshwater across Earth. “The results, which are probably a combination of the effects of climate change, vast human withdrawals of groundwater and simple natural changes, could have profound consequences if they continue, pointing to a situation in which some highly populous regions could struggle to find enough water in the future,” Mooney reports. “There’s strong suspicion that the melting of glaciers and ice sheets is tied to climate change. On land, it’s possible that some droughts and rainfall increases might also be, though the study is cautious about that, noting that natural variability can also be a major factor.”

— How air conditioning is warming the planet: The number of air conditioners around the world could jump from 1.6 to 5.6 billion units by the middle of the century, the International Energy Agency predicts. And the electricity used to power them could cause a spike in emissions that will warm the planet, the New York Times reports. “Greenhouse gas emissions released by coal and natural gas plants when generating electricity to power those air-conditioners would nearly double, from 1.25 billion tons in 2016 to 2.28 billion tons in 2050," per NYT. "Those emissions would contribute to global warming, which could further heighten the demand for air-conditioning.”

— It’s a hot one (even if you didn't feel it in D.C.): April was the third-warmest such month on record, according to NASA, despite the weather being unusually cold in the United States and Canada. “Other than central and eastern North America, nearly every other land area in the world was warmer-than-average in April,” Axios reports.

OIL CHECK

— Iran deal fallout: French oil giant Total is threatening to abandon a $2 billion natural gas project in Iran unless it gets a waiver from the Trump administration on sanctions the president reimposed last week, The Post’s Steven Mufson reports. Total signed a 20-year contract last year to spent at least $2 billion on the field, Mufson writes, but has concerns that “secondary sanctions” would cover foreign firms like it. “Total has always been clear that it cannot afford to be exposed to any secondary sanction, which might include the loss of financing in dollars by U.S. banks for its worldwide operations,” the company said in a statement on its website. The company will halt all work on the project before Nov. 4 if it doesn’t receive a waiver.

— Solar stall: Jobs in the solar industry fell last year, while coal and oil drilling jobs remained stagnant or increased slightly, according to a new energy jobs report released by former energy secretary Ernest Moniz and state energy officials. The solar sector lost 24,000 jobs, a 6 percent drop in 2017, per the Washington Examiner, which added that 15,000 of those jobs were in residential rooftop energy and 9,000 were in large utility-scale solar energy.

— Get ready for $90 oil: Brent crude oil prices will reach $90 per barrel by 2020, Morgan Stanley predicts in a new report, saying new international shipping regulations will boost demand. “The changes, which force vessels to consume lower sulfur fuels beginning in January of that year, will lead to a boom in demand for middle distillate products including diesel and marine gasoil, triggering the need for more crude,” per Bloomberg News.

— Meanwhile, the latest edition of the International Energy Agency’s oil report warns of a “sharp” rise in oil prices as a result of the withdrawal from the Iran deal. "The potential double supply shortfall represented by Iran and Venezuela could present a major challenge for producers to fend off sharp price rises and fill the gap, not just in terms of the number of barrels but also in terms of oil quality,” the agency said, per CNBC.

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a legislative hearing on America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands holds a legislative hearing.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans holds an oversight hearing.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission holds a meeting.
  • U.S. Energy Association holds an event on a carbon sequestration partnership.
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds a conversation with Total chief executive Patrick Pouyanné.

EXTRA MILEAGE

— You know what they say about baby birds with big feet? They are extremely cute.