The Energy 202: Some Senate Republicans are skewering Scott Pruitt. And not because of Chick-fil-A

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THE LIGHTBULB

Forget about Scott Pruitt asking government workers to help him buy a used mattress from President Trump's Washington hotel. Forget about him doing the same when trying to secure his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise.

What really has Republicans in Congress riled up about the EPA administrator — at least the ones from Iowa — is not Pruitt's potential ethics violations.

It's a wonky policy proposal about gasoline and diesel.

The two Republican senators from the nation's corn capital, Charles E. Grassley and Joni Ernst, each hammered Pruitt in harsh terms Tuesday over a proposal to rewrite rules governing requirements for how fuel derived from corn and other crops is mixed into the nation's supply of transportation fuel — stopping just short of calling for President Trump to remove the beleaguered EPA chief from office.

Late in the day, their effort to sink the proposed changes to the nation's ethanol policy appeared to have worked. Bloomberg News reported Tuesday night that the White House indefinitely delayed releasing a memo outlining policy changes. A source familiar with the matter confirmed the delay with The Washington Post. 

That evening, Grassley tweeted triumphantly:

As did Ernst, who praised Trump and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue by name but left Pruitt unmentioned.

Earlier in the day, the GOP senators had some very harsh words for the EPA chief over the ethanol proposal.

“I am hopeful that the president will just recognize that Mr. Pruitt is breaking our president's promises to farmers and at some point he will say, 'It's time for you to go,'' Ernst said at an S&P Global Platts Energy Podium discussion Tuesday morning. “But that's up to the president to make that call. I will remain highly critical of Administrator Pruitt.”

Ernst went on to criticize Pruitt for the “way he spends money” and the “way he misuses, basically, his office.”

Pruitt “is about as swampy as you get here in Washington, D.C.," she said. “And if the president wants to drain the swamp, he needs to take a look at his own Cabinet.”

Grassley unleashed an equally strong broadside. “This is a case where the president is being ill-served by political appointees that aren't carrying out his agenda,” he said. In the past, Grassley has tweeted Pruitt “should step down” if he waters down the Renewable Fuel Standard. 

The senior senator from Iowa also turned to a line of criticism once wielded by candidate Donald Trump on the campaign trail at the EPA.

“You know how Big Oil has had Washington wired for a long time, and I think EPA is part of this Washington swamp delivering this blow to ethanol if it occurs,” Grassley said during a conference call with reporters.

During the presidential campaign, Trump vowed to be a champion for corn-based ethanol, contrasting himself with his opponent at the time, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.)

Cruz is “right now for the oil,” Trump told a crowd in Des Moines in 2015. “But I understand because Big Oil pays him a lot of money. He's got to be oil, right? The oil companies give him a lot of money.” 

The ethanol debate has divided congressional Republicans from different regions of the country, with those representing farming states such as Iowa looking to uphold the RFS enacted in 2005 and those from oil- and natural gas-producing states such as Texas interesting in changing or repealing it.

The Trump administration's delayed plan would have tried to split the difference. The administration was expected to give the biofuel sector something it wants — permission to sell fuel with 15 percent ethanol year-round — in exchange for something the petroleum refiners desire — permission to have ethanol exports count toward complying with renewable-fuel mandates.

But ethanol producers thought they would be getting the short end of the stick under the plan. “There’s a growing sense of frustration that Administrator Pruitt’s implementation of the RFS has a refinery-friendly flavor to it,” Bob Dinneen, head of the Renewable Fuels Association, the leading trade group for the U.S. ethanol industry, told The Post in an interview Tuesday. 

Later in the day, Dinneen was pleased with Trump's reversal. “We are happy the President continues to recognize the importance of our industry to America’s farmers and rural economies across the nation,” he said in a statement.

Congressional Democrats have repeatedly dinged Republicans for failing to call for Pruitt's removal following a string of questionable spending decisions at the EPA, such as the purchases of a soundproof phone booth for $43,000 and a dozen customized fountain pens for $1,560.

When it comes to reelection, the Iowans' focus on ethanol over ethics makes sense. “This isn’t pens. This isn’t phone booths,” Dinneen said. “This is stuff that hits the pocketbooks of their constituents. So of course they are ticked off.”

The ethanol industry has pushed back against Pruitt not only through its surrogates in Congress, but through administrative and court actions, too. This month, the Renewable Fuels Association and other biofuel lobbying groups petitioned the EPA and filed a lawsuit with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, raising concerns over a recent series of exemptions to the RFS the EPA issued to small refiners that say they struggle financially with meeting the biofuel mandate.

Grassley has taken issue with the exemptions, including one reportedly issued to Marathon Oil. “That an oil company making billions of dollars in profits even thinks it has a shot at receiving a ‘hardship’ waiver proves how broken this process is,” Grassley said last month.

But oil and gas industry representatives say the EPA is simply following a ruling last August from the 10th Circuit that compels the agency to issue waivers to a broader swath of refiners.

“No matter how much the ethanol industry might wish otherwise, EPA is legally required to give exemptions to small refineries that face disproportionate economic hardship under the RFS program,” said Jeff Holmstead, a partner at the law firm Bracewell who helped represent the petroleum firm Sinclair in the case.

POWER PLAYS

— Gas tax strikes back: Voters in California appear to have recalled state Sen. Josh Newman after the Orange County Democrat voted to raise the state's gasoline tax. The loss "will hurt Democrats’ ability to regain a supermajority in the state Legislature," the Los Angeles Times reports, and serves as reminder of how politically difficult it is to raise taxes on transportation fuel. Republicans in Washington contemplated hiking the federal gas at Trump's prodding before ultimately dropping the plan.

— We’ve reached the Chick-fil-A portion of the Scott Pruitt story: Three months after Pruitt was sworn in as EPA administrator, his executive scheduler contacted the chairman and president of Chick-fil-A, Dan Cathy, to see whether he would meet with the administrator to discuss a “potential business opportunity.”

What was it? Pruitt wanted to discuss was his wife’s interest in becoming a Chick-fil-A franchisee, The Post reports. Marlyn Pruitt never ended up opening a restaurant. “But the revelation that Pruitt used his official position and EPA staff to try to line up work for his wife appears to open a new chapter in the ongoing saga of his questionable spending and management decisions, which so far have spawned a dozen federal probes," Juliet Eilperin, Brady Dennis and Josh Dawsey write.

— The EPA tweet that will never die: The Government Accountability Office will investigate the legality of a tweet from the EPA’s official Twitter account about the Senate approval of the agency’s now second-in-command, Andrew Wheeler, a post that appeared to jab at the Democratic Party.

The GAO agreed to a request from Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who called for a review, criticizing the tweet as being "purely partisan in nature" in a letter to the watchdog arm of Congress. GAO will look into whether the tweet runs afoul of a prohibition on using agency funds for publicity and propaganda.

News of that inquiry came just as another federal watchdog agency cleared the EPA in an investigation into whether that tweet violated the Hatch Act, which seeks to keep government functions nonpartisan, Brady Dennis reports. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel found no evidence that Pruitt composed the tweet or directed anyone at the agency to do so. The office also said in a letter that the tweet didn’t amount to a Hatch Act violation because “it was not aimed at the electoral success or defeat of a political party or candidate for partisan political office.”

— Zinke gets all-clear, too: That same office has also cleared Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke of wrongdoing under the Hatch Act after a review of a speech he gave to the NHL team the Vegas Golden Knights, whose owner was a campaign contributor to Zinke and Trump, per the Associated Press.

— "Fixer Upper" violated lead paint rules: The EPA said Tuesday it has settled with the stars of the HGTV series “The Fixer Upper” for violating rules on the use of lead-based paint. While paint made with lead is no longer used in new homes, the EPA said Chip and Joanna Gaines failed to take specific precautions that would reduce the risk of exposure to lead paint, such as covering floors and vents, the Associated Press reports. The Gaines’s company, Magnolia Homes, will have to pay a $40,000 penalty and spend $160,000 to fix the hazardous issues in homes around Waco, Tex.

— The latest on Trump’s bailout of coal and nuclear power plants:

  • Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Kevin McIntyre said Tuesday the panel may not necessarily have a role in the administration’s plans to help save coal and nuclear plants. “Under the law as it's written and regulations of DOE, there are scenarios that could develop that would not involve a rate proceeding before FERC,” McIntyre said at the EIA Energy Conference in Washington. “We are looking at those details now.”
  • RTO Insider also reported a FERC official said the commission had “no idea” the directive from the president was coming on Friday. The report also noted McIntyre told reporters he had not yet been briefed by the Energy Department on what coal and nuclear plants would be affected.
  • Meanwhile, Mark Menezes, the department’s undersecretary of energy, said the agency will work to fulfill Trump’s plan. “We stand by everything that's in the paper,” Menezes told reporters at the conference, per the Washington Examiner. “It is one of the options we are considering. This is a process that is bigger than the Department of Energy. We will ultimately take the action.”
  •  A new report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance suggests the plan could in fact reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “[C]oal-fired plants may not actually run more even if the Trump administration creates capacity payments for them,” per the report. “Rewarding reactors with the same, however, would probably lead to more nuclear production and could displace millions of tons of carbon dioxide a year, BNEF analyst William Nelson said in the report.”

— House GOP targets NRDC: The chair and senior member of the House Natural Resources Committee wrote a letter to the Natural Resources Defense Council calling for the environmental group to register as a foreign agent over its activities in China, The Post’s Steven Mufson and Chris Mooney report. “In the letter, committee Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations,  demand that NRDC President Rhea Suh produce documents about the nonprofit group’s relationship with the Chinese government, its transactions in China and any effort to register as foreign agents of China,” they write.

The NRDC rejected the notion it was working on behalf of the Chinese government, with spokesman Bob Deans saying that “as the most populous country on Earth, China has much to do with the kind of world the next generation will inherit, in our country and around the world. We’re proud of our work, in China and elsewhere, helping to create a more sustainable future for everyone, and we look forward to discussing that work with Chairman Bishop and the committee.”

— “I read a lot:” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told The Post's Christian Davenport why his views on climate change shifted. He said as chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology’s Environment Subcommittee, he “listened to a lot of testimony. I heard a lot of experts, and I read a lot.” He added: “I came to the conclusion myself that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that we've put a lot of it into the atmosphere and therefore we have contributed to the global warming that we've seen. And we've done it in really significant ways.”

— "The movement now transcends the Kochs:" One of the two billionaire industrialist brothers whose powerful conservative network transformed Republican politics will step down as chairman of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation due to health reasons. In a letter to Koch Industries employees on Tuesday, Charles Koch announced his 78-year-old brother David’s health “has been in decline since he was hospitalized last summer" without specifying the illness, The Post’s James Hohmann and Amy Gardner reports.

David Koch's departure comes at "a pivotal time" for the libertarian-leaning network reviled by Democrats, which has tried to recast itself as independent of the Trump-led GOP. On Monday, the network announced a multimillion-dollar campaign to oppose Trump's import tariffs.

— Puerto Rico ordered to release data on deaths: A judge in Puerto Rico ruled on Monday the U.S. territory’s government has a week to release death certificates and data to CNN and the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico on the death toll following Hurricane Maria. Although the government has argued the information should be kept private to protect the victims’ identities, CNN reports “Puerto Rico Superior Court Judge Lauracelis Roques Arroyo ruled these records are a matter of public information and must be released, with the exception of the Social Security numbers of the deceased.”

— California vs. Trump: On Tuesday, the attorneys general of California and Oregon filed a court motion to challenge an executive order from Trump requiring most federal agencies to repeal two regulations for every new one issued, arguing the so-called "two-for-one" policy runs afoul of the Clean Air Act and other environmental laws.

OIL CHECK

— The Trump administration calls for more oil abroad: The U.S. government has quietly called on Saudi Arabia and other OPEC producers to boost oil production by about 1 million barrels a day, Bloomberg News reports, a rare request that comes as gas prices surged to the highest prices in years. “While U.S. lawmakers have habitually criticized the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries at times of high oil prices, and the government has on occasion encouraged the cartel to pump more, it’s unusual for Washington to ask for a specific output hike,” per the report.

Why is the U.S. pressing OPEC? The Trump administration’s request may be a way of forestalling the political consequences of higher gas prices during a midterm election year. But in doing so, the request becomes a rare instance of the Trump team asking for more of a foreign commodity to be imported into the United States.

— The road ahead for Tesla: The electric carmaker’s shareholders voted during the company’s annual shareholder meeting on Tuesday to keep Elon Musk’s role as chairman of the board, The Post’s Peter Holley reports, “despite a controversial proposal to strip him of that position.” The decision was a boon for the embattled Musk six months into “what is arguably his company’s toughest year to date."

Musk expressed confidence that production for the Model 3 will reach 5,000 cars a week by the end of the month, and said the company is currently producing 3,500 Model 3’s per week. Musk reaffirmed during the meeting that “forecasts for profit and cash generation in the second half of this year… are dependent on reaching this target," according to Bloomberg News.

THERMOMETER

— A few hundred miles separate record wet and dry: While the Washington region, including Baltimore, Beltsville, Md., and Damascus, Md. have seen the wettest 30-day period on record, cities farther north are facing opposite conditions, The Post’s Angela Fritz reports. In several Northeast cities including Portland, Maine, Concord, N.H. and Lebanon, N.H., it has been the driest 30-day period on record.

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security holds a hearing on the Iran nuclear agreement.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources holds a legislative hearing on Onshore Energy Development Bills.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on several bills.

Coming Up

  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy will hold a hearing on hydropower licensing process on Thursday.
  • The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on the “Electric Grid of the Future” on Thursday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands holds an oversight hearing on “Wildfire Risk, Forest Health, and Associated Management Priorities of the U.S. Forest Service” on Thursday.

EXTRA MILEAGE

— A fiery end: Hours after it was discovered by NASA, an asteroid disintegrated over the weekend just “several miles” above the Earth's surface: