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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: Kerry says Paris climate deal alone 'is not enough' | EPA halts planned Taiwan trip for Wheeler| EPA sued over rule extending life of toxic coal ash ponds EPA halts planned Taiwan trip for Wheeler EPA sued over rule extending life of toxic coal ash ponds 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 CarperOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Kerry says Paris climate deal alone 'is not enough' | EPA halts planned Taiwan trip for Wheeler| EPA sued over rule extending life of toxic coal ash ponds Overnight Energy: Biden names John Kerry as 'climate czar' | GM reverses on Trump, exits suit challenging California's tougher emissions standards | United Nations agency says greenhouse gas emissions accumulating despite lockdown decline GSA transition delay 'poses serious risk' to Native Americans, Udall says 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 MarkeyUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally 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 BarrassoOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee | Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects | Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight Senate advances energy regulator nominees despite uncertainty of floor vote Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee 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 ErnstThe Memo: Trump plows ahead with efforts to overturn election More conservatives break with Trump over election claims Peggy Noonan: 'Bogus dispute' by Trump 'doing real damage' 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.