March 11, 2020

Senators press Trump deputy EPA pick at confirmation hearing

Source: The Hill


Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pressed President Trump’s pick for the No. 2 position at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on a range of issues during an at times contentious Senate hearing Wednesday.

Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) pressed Douglas Benevento about ethanol requirement exemptions for small refineries after a federal court ruled that the EPA would have to reconsider certain waivers.

The EPA has the option to appeal the court’s decision.

“Can you commit to me that the EPA will not grant any of these pending small refinery exemptions of 2019 until the legal action is settled?” Ernst asked during the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.

Benevento said he would get back to her with a response.

“Our farmers and producers are tired of being yanked around by the EPA and again these illegal [exemptions],” Ernst replied. “A number of these ‘small refineries’ are actually owned by much larger companies, oil companies like Exxon and Chevron.”

After the nominee similarly told Duckworth that he’d get back to her on whether the agency would temporarily stop issuing the waivers until the litigation is resolved, the senator said, “It’s an easy thing to say. Don’t grant any more waivers, since you’re going to be appealing this ruling, or if you’re not going to appeal the ruling, then you don’t need to grant any more waivers.”

“I just don’t think it would be prudent to be making a regulatory decision right here,” Benevento responded.

“This is not a regulatory decision, this is just suspending any future actions on granting any more small refinery waivers,” Duckworth said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) also raised concerns about the agency’s ethics rules, particularly asking questions about Mandy Gunasekara, who is expected to return to the agency after leaving early last year and founding an energy nonprofit.

“You haven’t updated your ethics rules, you don’t even ask about dark money conflicts of interest. You’re still using ethics rules that predate the explosion of dark money that has corrupted our politics,” Whitehouse said.

“How could you possibly know if she is behaving in violation of her duty of impartiality without knowing who her big funders were through this time when she was in her hiatus from the EPA?” the senator added, referring to Gunasekara.

“We expect all employees to follow the ethics rules as they are written and to coordinate all their activities — their obligations — with career ethics counsel,” Benevento responded.

“And you don’t ask the right questions ... so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Whitehouse replied.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) also questioned Benevento on contamination by a class of cancer-linked chemicals known as PFAS.

“We need to make sure ... we have the backup science,” the nominee said on PFAS. “We’re moving as quickly as science allows us to move and as quickly as the statute allows us to move.”

“Time is of the essence here. I think that this is so pervasive and I don’t know what the damage could be,” Capito said. “Quicker is better, more aggressive is better, and using the science, yes, but also, we all know that things can get expedited and move faster if you have the passion behind it.”

“Where we find PFAS, we are making sure to cut off exposure,” Benevento said.

PFAS chemicals can be found in a variety of products and are also known as “forever chemicals” because of their persistence in the environment and the human body.

President Trump announced last month that he would nominate Benevento to be the deputy EPA administrator.

Benevento has held various roles at the EPA since 2017, including serving as associate deputy administrator. Before joining the Trump administration, he worked for Xcel Energy, a gas and electric utility. He was also registered as a lobbyist for Colorado Interstate Gas.

He is reportedly close with Andrew Wheeler, the agency's administrator. According to E&E News, Wheeler was a groomsman in Benevento's 2000 wedding.

By:  Rachel Frazin