Overnight Energy: Former Pruitt aide alleges more wasteful spending, retaliation | Senate confirms EPA No. 2 | Zinke backs off big park fee increases

Overnight Energy: Former Pruitt aide alleges more wasteful spending, retaliation | Senate confirms EPA No. 2 | Zinke backs off big park fee increases
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EX-PRUITT STAFFER TELLS ALL: Former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deputy chief of staff Kevin Chmielewski has met with both GOP and Democratic staffers on the House Oversight Committee to discuss the circumstances that led to him being placed on permanent leave.

In those talks, Chmielewski also accused EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Justices take up major case on water rules | Dems probe administration's dealings with Saudi Arabia | Greens sue EPA over toxic paint strippers Environmental groups sue EPA in bid to ban toxic paint strippers Overnight Energy: EPA to make formal decision on regulating drinking water contaminant | Utility to close coal plant despite Trump plea | Greens say climate is high on 2020 voters’ minds MORE of excessive spending and of retaliating against critical employees.

According to Democratic staffers who met with him Wednesay, he confirmed a number of reports including that Pruitt used his advance team staffer Millan Hupp as a personal real estate representative during his apartment hunt. He also claimed that Pruitt knew about a 33 percent raise given to that same staffer and a 63 percet raise given to another.

Democrats announced what was discussed with Chmielewski in a letter they sent to both President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates Jeffrey Rosen to replace Rosenstein at DOJ McCabe says ‘it’s possible’ Trump is a Russian asset McCabe: Trump ‘undermining the role of law enforcement’ MORE and Pruitt Thursday.

"Mr. Chmielewski provided new details and corroborated other reports regarding allegations of wasteful spending of taxpayer funds and your disregard for the ethical and legal requirements of your position," Democratic Sens. Tom Carper (Del.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) and Reps. Elijah Cummings (Md.), Gerry Connolly (Va.) and Don Beyer (Va.) wrote to Pruitt on Thursday.

"Mr. Chmielewski described an environment in which you sought to marginalize, remove or otherwise retaliate against agency employees who advised you not to take these troubling actions, or refused to take or justify such actions at your direction," they wrote.

A spokesperson for the GOP House Oversight committee said the staff found Chmielewski to be "very credible" and that they were "impressed by the amount of information he was able to share."

The spokesperson said the committee hopes that next steps will be done in a bipartisan way. GOP members of the House Oversight committee, including Chairman Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyTrey Gowdy joins Fox News as a contributor Congress must take the next steps on federal criminal justice reforms Lynch testimony marks final interview of GOP-led probe MORE (R-S.C), were not alerted to the Democrats interview with Chmielewski until reports surfaced Wednesday.


Here are some of Chmielewski's allegations from the Dems letter:
--Pruitt bought bullet proof vests, biometric locks and new SUVs for security.

--Pruitt's offices are decorated by art on loan from the Smithsonian, paid for by taxpayer dollars.

-- Chmielewski said he not see former EPA head of policy Samantha Dravis "for a period of weeks."

--Pruitt "insisted" on the use of lights and sirens to speed through traffic.

--Millan Hupp, who was given a 33 percent raise, was used as "personal real estate representative" for Pruitt during his D.C. apartment search.

--Raises given to Hupp and another formerly Oklahoma based staffer were "100% Pruitt himself."

--EPA looked into a $100,000 private jet contract but said he was responsible for squashing the idea.

--Pruitt routinely told staff to "find me something to do" in regions he wanted to visit personally, including frequent trips back to his state of Oklahoma.

--Pruitt often chose hotels over the 300 percent cap permitted in exceptional circumstances by the federal government.

--Chmielewski said he overheard a convo where the energy lobbyist husband of Pruitt's landlord, Steven Hart, complained to Pruitt about delayed payments and that Pruitt's daughter had ruined the floors from her roller suitcase while staying there. (Hart has since denied these allegations in a statement from his spokesman.)

Read more here.


Another letter of note: Another letter sent by two Democrats Tuesday requested an investigation into Pruitt's usage of "at least four" email addresses with epa.gov endings. The letter, sent by the ranking member of the Environmental and Public Works committee, Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperDems slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants EPA to announce PFAS chemical regulation plans by end of year Overnight Energy: Zinke joins Trump-tied lobbying firm | Senators highlight threat from invasive species | Top Republican calls for Green New Deal vote in House MORE (D-Del.), and Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyGOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats The border deal: What made it in, what got left out Lawmakers introduce bill to fund government, prevent shutdown MORE (D-Ore.), highlighted that using multiple emails could be against federal policy and might not show up in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

An EPA spokesperson told The Hill that only one of the four emails is used personally by Pruitt and all are searched under FOIA.

Read more here.


Pruitt's approval at 29 percent: Public Policy Polling is out with a poll Thursday putting Pruitt's approval rating at 29 percent.

The left-leaning firm found that 43 percent of respondents -- a plurality -- want Pruitt fired.

The survey was commissioned by American Bridge, a liberal campaign group.

Read more.


SENATE CONFIRMS PRUITT'S NO. 2: Amid the news about Pruitt's controversies, the Senate voted 53-45 to confirm Andrew Wheeler, a former energy lobbyist, to be Pruitt's deputy.

All of the Republicans present voted for Wheeler, along with Democratic Sens. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyOvernight Energy: Trump taps ex-oil lobbyist Bernhardt to lead Interior | Bernhardt slams Obama officials for agency's ethics issues | Head of major green group steps down Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary EPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks MORE (Ind.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampOvernight Energy: Trump taps ex-oil lobbyist Bernhardt to lead Interior | Bernhardt slams Obama officials for agency's ethics issues | Head of major green group steps down Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary On The Money: Shutdown Day 27 | Trump fires back at Pelosi by canceling her foreign travel | Dems blast 'petty' move | Trump also cancels delegation to Davos | House votes to disapprove of Trump lifting Russia sanction MORE (N.D.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinDemocrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal Senate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general GOP wants to pit Ocasio-Cortez against Democrats in the Senate MORE (W.Va.). Those Democrats are running for reelection this year in heavily Republican states.

Most Democrats argued that Wheeler could become Pruitt's successor if the administrator is dismissed, and that he has not been properly vetted for that scenario.

"We should know whether Andrew Wheeler is up to the task of helping to right this badly damaged EPA ship, to restore the confidence and have it headed back on the right course," Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said on the Senate floor before the Wheeler vote.

"The things we've learned about the EPA over the last two weeks give us a different outlook than when [Mitch] McConnell filed cloture on Andrew Wheeler's nomination just before the Easter recess. And it certainly gives a much different perspective than we had when Andrew Wheeler sat before the Environment and Public Works Committee last year," he added, referring to the Kentucky Republican who serves as Senate majority leader.

The GOP was united in support of Wheeler.

"Mr. Wheeler is very well qualified for the position. He spent over 25 years working in environmental policies," said Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoDems slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants Overnight Energy: Zinke joins Trump-tied lobbying firm | Senators highlight threat from invasive species | Top Republican calls for Green New Deal vote in House Senators highlight threat from invasive species MORE (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeAllies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump On The Money: Trump to sign border deal, declare emergency to build wall | Senate passes funding bill, House to follow | Dems promise challenge to emergency declaration Trump to sign border deal, declare national emergency MORE (R-Okla.), for whom Wheeler used to work, also cheered him.

"The extreme environmentalists were given free rein under the Obama administration for eight years, including writing the EPA's regulations, and they can't handle the fact that the American people said, 'enough,'" he said.

"[President] Trump and Scott Pruitt have been delivering relief for the American people and the economy since they've been in office. Andrew Wheeler will be a great help to Administrator Pruitt in continuing to implement President Trump's vision of returning the EPA to an agency of the people, subject to the rule of law."

Read more.


What it means: Ostensibly, if Pruitt resigns or is fired, Wheeler would become acting administrator, once he is sworn in at the EPA. He'd bring with him the same basic policy agenda, priorities and commitment to Trump's deregulation push, without the scandals currently plaguing Pruitt.

But whether that will happen is little more than speculation at this point. Trump has only said good things about Pruitt lately and shown no indication he wants his EPA head out.


ZINKE TO RAISE PARK FEES BY $5: Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Zinke joins Trump-tied lobbying firm | Senators highlight threat from invasive species | Top Republican calls for Green New Deal vote in House Zinke, Lewandowski join Trump veterans’ lobbying firm Is a presidential appointment worth the risk? MORE is backing off from his plan for big increases to entrance fees for some national parks.

The National Park Service said Thursday it will increase most entrance fees at parks that currently charge them by $5, much less than the increase of as much as $45 that Zinke proposed in October. That would have raised a vehicle pass for the most-visited parks during their peak periods to $70.

"I want to thank the American people who made their voices heard through the public comment process on the original fee proposal. Your input has helped us develop a balanced plan that focuses on modest increases at the 117 fee-charging parks as opposed to larger increases proposed for 17 highly visited national parks," Zinke said in a statement.

Zinke's original proposal elicited strong backlash from Democrats and environmentalists, who accused Zinke of prioritizing oil, coal and other companies that use federal land over parkgoers.

The groups that opposed Zinke's previous plan applauded Thursday's announcement.

"From the moment the administration made its proposal to triple fees at some of America's most popular national parks, many businesses, gateway communities, governors, tourism groups, conservation organizations and the public have said this was the wrong solution for parks' repair needs. The public spoke, and the administration listened," said Theresa Pierno, president of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Read more.


ON TAP FRIDAY: The House and Commerce Committee's environment subcommittee will hold a hearing on high-octane fuels and high-efficiency vehicles.



The Environmental Defense Fund is planning to launch a satellite to monitor methane emissions, NPR reports.

OPEC is predicting that the global surplus of oil stockpiles is tightening, which will spur prices to increase, Reuters reports.

New Zealand's government is banning new offshore oil and natural gas exploration, the New Zealand Herald reports.



Check out Thursday's stories ...

-Senate approves Trump's pick for No. 2 at EPA

-Zinke backs off plan for big national park fee increases

-Trump aims to ease compliance with air pollution rules

-Trump signals support for changing summer ethanol policy

-San Juan mayor: 700K without power in Puerto Rico after outage

-Dems call for probe into EPA chief's use of multiple email addresses

-EPA chief Pruitt has 29 percent approval rating: poll

-Dems: Former Pruitt aide alleges more wasteful spending, retaliation at EPA

-Senate moves toward confirming deputy EPA head