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Embattled EPA Chief Scott Pruitt Faces Anger In Farm Country Over Policy

Steve Nelson (right), president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, looks on as Scott Pruitt talks to farmers in Lincoln, Neb.
Grant Gerlock
Harvest Public Media
Steve Nelson (right), president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, looks on as Scott Pruitt talks to farmers in Lincoln, Neb.

With a litany of alleged ethics controversies swirling at home, embattled Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt took the show on the road this week, meeting with farmers in a handful of Midwestern states to talk about his policy agenda.

While Thursday evening's meeting in Lincoln, Neb., was polite, the reception in other states has not been as welcoming, especially when it comes to conversations about his ethanol policies.

Corn farmers have been venting their frustration about Pruitt's decision to not expand summer sales of ethanol, a renewable fuel made from corn and other plant materials, with billboards and rallies.

In South Dakota, The Associated Press reported some farmers drove tractors to an anti-Pruitt rally taking place at the same time as Pruitt met with other producers.

Anger over ethanol policies and the renewable fuel standard (RFS) seems far away from the seemingly ceaseless string of ethics controversies dogging the EPA administrator.

But Pruitt's stance on ethanol has made him enemies in the Corn Belt, including Iowa Sens. Check Grassley and Joni Ernst, two Republicans, who have voiced criticisms of the EPA chief.

Grassley has said Pruitt's policies undermine President Donald Trump's stated commitment to ethanol.

"This is a case where the president is being ill-served by political appointees that aren't carrying out his agenda," Grassley said earlier this month.

Ernst has called Pruitt — who is the subject of at least a dozen investigations by congressional committees, ethics watchdogs and federal auditors — "about as swampy as you get."

A handful of other Republicans have joined in their criticisms. In an interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham on Fox News, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a longtime friend and supporter of Pruitt said, "All these things that are coming are really not good things. I've kind of taken the position that if that doesn't stop, I'm going to be forced to be in a position where I'm going to say, 'Scott you're not doing your job.'"

On Wednesday, Ingraham tweeted that Pruitt's "gotta go."

Trump has voiced his support of Pruitt and the job he's doing at EPA.

"I'm not happy about certain things. I'll be honest," Trump told reporters, Friday. "But he's done a fantastic job at the EPA which is very overriding."

Pruitt has moved to undo dozens of Obama-era environmental regulations.

In the Midwest, he seems to be banking on support for his efforts to replace the Obama-era Waters of the United States Rule (WOTUS), a rule that aimed to define which waters EPA can regulate. A repeal and replace of WOTUS has been a longtime goal of Pruitt's. As Oklahoma's attorney general, he led a multi-state lawsuit challenging the regulation.

In Lincoln, he said the new definition of federal waters, now under review by the White House, will be scaled back.

"We've actually went (sic) to the text of the statute and gone to the case law and asked ourselves, 'What did Congress intend with respect to what a waters of the United States is?'" Pruitt told the gathering in the boardroom of the Nebraska Farm Bureau. "And I can tell you they didn't intend it to be a puddle, a dry creek bed or an ephemeral drainage ditch."

Some agriculture-industry representatives vilified WOTUS during the Obama administration, claiming farmers would have to unnecessarily follow strict EPA regulations. Environmental advocates, however, worry that a limited version of WOTUS would leave wetlands vulnerable to development and allow more water pollution. George Cunningham, an aquatic ecologist and Conservation Chair with the Nebraska Sierra Club, also said it would "lead to massive habitat changes [affecting] hundreds of species, ultimately leading to species endangerment."

Corn farmers in the room were pleased to hear about the EPA's WOTUS rewrite, but didn't respond well when Pruitt said a plan to expand ethanol sales over the summer months remains on hold.

Farm groups have been pushing the EPA to allow E15, a 15 percent blend of ethanol with gasoline to be sold year-round. It's currently restricted over the summer months because of concerns with air quality. Pruitt said he supports year-round E15 and that the EPA has a proposal ready to go, but he said he has been told to hold off, though he didn't say by whom.

That frustrated corn farmer Dan Wesely of Morse Bluff, Neb., who expected more support for ethanol from the Trump administration.

"He should come forward and say, 'You know, we're going to get this process through. We're going to get it by next summer,'" said Wesely, who is also president of the Nebraska Corn Growers Association. "The longer it gets drawn out, the trust factor is hurt a little bit."

The EPA has granted hardship waivers to oil refineries, some owned by large corporationslike Andeavor, exempting them from a portion of their obligations under the ethanol mandate. Some of those exemptions prompted the National Farmers Union, the National Corn Growers Association, the Renewable Fuels Association and the American Coalition for Ethanol to file a lawsuit over the waivers.

Pruitt claimed in Lincoln, Neb., that any waivers granted to refineries fit the guidelines of the RFS guidelines, the law that sets ethanol policy.

Nathan Brabec, who works at the Louis Dreyfus ethanol plant in Norfolk, Neb.,, is worried that waivers water down ethanol production targets.

"He made valid points but at the end of the day, we've got to meet the RFS," Brabec said.

Meanwhile, a proposal favored by corn producers to make certain blends of ethanol available year-round remains on the shelf.

This story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focused on food and agriculture.

Copyright 2018 Harvest Public Media

Harvest Public Media's reporter at NET News, where he started as Morning Edition host in 2008. He joined Harvest Public Media in July 2012. Grant has visited coal plants, dairy farms, horse tracks and hospitals to cover a variety of stories. Before going to Nebraska, Grant studied mass communication as a grad student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and completed his undergrad at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. He grew up on a farm in southwestern Iowa where he listened to public radio in the tractor, but has taken up city life in Lincoln, Neb.