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EPA's Wheeler grilled by Democrats over environmental rollbacks amid COVID-19

EPA's Wheeler grilled by Democrats over environmental rollbacks amid COVID-19
© Bonnie Cash

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Haaland reportedly recommends full restoration of monuments Trump altered | EPA to reinstate air pollution panel disbanded under Trump | State appeals court upholds approval of Minnesota pipeline EPA to reinstate air pollution panel disbanded under Trump Overnight Energy: EPA to reconsider Trump decision not to tighten soot standards | Interior proposes withdrawal of Trump rule that would allow drillers to pay less | EPA reverses Trump guidance it said weakened 'forever chemicals' regulations MORE defended the agency’s rollback of Obama-era regulations from criticism from Democratic senators at a Wednesday hearing. 

Democrats seized on a number of recent regulations that would roll back air protections, including seven that have been proposed or finalized during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report from Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperThis week: Democrats face fractures in spending fight Progressives want to tighten screws beyond Manchin and Sinema Democrats wary of emerging bipartisan infrastructure deal MORE (D-Del.), ranking member of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee. 

“Will you stop writing rules that make things actually worse and not better,” Carper asked during his committee's hearing with Wheeler.

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“All of our rules make things better,” Wheeler retorted.

A recent Harvard study linking air pollution and coronavirus deaths was a central feature of the hearing, with several lawmakers focusing on the risks to people of color, as many polluting industries are located in majority-minority areas.

“Shame on you, Mr. Administrator. You should be apologizing to people of color in our country for what you are doing. Shame on you,” Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyClimate progressives launch first action against Biden amid growing frustration Senate Democrats urge Google to conduct racial equity audit Senate climate advocates start digging in on infrastructure goals MORE (D-Mass.) said in a lengthy admonishment of Wheeler. 

Wheeler said the numerous regulations finalized by the agency have saved consumers an estimated $7 billion in regulatory costs. 

“I want to be clear that we are not achieving this at the expense of environmental laws enacted by Congress. In fact some of this important work is modernizing decades-old regulations and bringing them up to date,” he said.

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The sentiment was echoed by Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoBiden land management pick faces GOP scrutiny over decades-old tree spiking case Senate passes long-delayed China bill OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden ends infrastructure talks with key Republican | Colonial Pipeline CEO grilled over ransomware attack | Texas gov signs bills to improve power grid after winter storm MORE (R-Wyo.), the committee's chairman.

“I think EPA should be praised for its efforts to protect the environment, while cutting ill-conceived and duplicative regulations, over-regulation that stymies economic activity [and] worsens public health,” he said.

But Democratic lawmakers said recent moves by the agency — including a rollback of fuel efficiency standards and a memo that suspends penalties for companies that fail to monitor their pollution during the pandemic — are indeed making air quality worse.

New documents reviewed by The Hill show EPA career staff countered claims from the agency that scaling back fuel economy standards would reduce “climate change-related impacts and most air pollutants.”   

Another EPA memo allows companies to suspend pollution monitoring required under the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The policy is temporary, though it has no set end date, and companies will still be required to document when they stopped monitoring their emissions and why the pandemic prevented them from doing so. 

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“Nobody is allowed to increase their emissions, zero, nobody is allowed to increase their emissions under our enforcement discretion,” Wheeler said of the memo. 

However, it’s unclear how the EPA would be aware if emissions went up, since the memo greenlights companies to cease tracking them.

The hearing also underscored tensions over the EPA's ethanol policy. Wheeler faced calls from Republican senators to both ease requirements that refineries continue to blend ethanol into fuel alongside calls to shore up conditions for struggling ethanol producers.

“We are looking to see what relief we can provide everyone. The ethanol industry is also hurting as well,” Wheeler said. The locked-down global economy has contributed to falling oil and gas prices, exacerbating problems in the industry.

Small oil refineries have been hit particularly hard, Wheeler said. They've had to deal with lower demand, and a court decision throwing out waivers that exempted some refineries from having to blend ethanol into their products. As a result, such refineries must pay the costs of mixing ethanol into their products. 

Barrasso, who represents a big oil-producing state, called EPA's decision not to appeal the ruling “inexcusable.” 

But Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstOvernight Defense: Pentagon details military construction projects getting .2B restored from wall funds | Biden chooses former commander to lead Navy | Bill seeks to boost visa program for Afghans who helped US Meghan McCain: Harris 'sounded like a moron' discussing immigration Senate bill would add visas, remove hurdles to program for Afghans who helped US MORE (R-Iowa), whose state produces the corn used for ethanol, said oil companies are wrong to blame the ethanol industry for hardships caused by the virus and a surge in the oil supply from Russia and Saudi Arabia.

“This is frustrating to me and to my farmers in Iowa, and time and time again we're seeing these battles play out,” she said. 

“This waiver requires clear evidence that the source of economic pain” results from adding ethanol and not any other factors, she said.