January 17, 2017

This Week's Hearings Will Shed Light on Trump Administration's Energy, Environmental Priorities

As Inauguration Day approaches, energy and environmental issues will take center stage with this week’s confirmation hearings for the heads of the Department of Energy (DOE), the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These hearings will set the stage not only for the priorities of the Trump administration, but also how Congress, particularly the Democrats, will work with the incoming nominees. Much can be learned about the direction of a number of policy issues through the questions asked by the senators at the confirmation hearings, as well as the follow-up questions submitted to the nominees after the fact. Let’s take them one at a time.

Department of Energy

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry has been nominated for Secretary of Energy, and his hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will be held Thursday, January 19. So far, of the three nominees, Governor Perry is the least controversial, despite having called for the DOE’s elimination during his presidential campaign. As governor of Texas, Rick Perry was very involved in the energy sector issues of his state, and since leaving office he has served on the Board of Directors of Energy Transfer Partners, which owns and operates one of the largest energy asset portfolios in the United States. The company owns 62,500 miles of oil and natural gas pipelines and is currently in the process of constructing the 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline. Governor Perry stepped down from the Board earlier this month.

During the hearing, Governor Perry is likely to lay out the overall agenda for how the DOE will view energy research, the role of the national laboratories and the direction the Trump administration will take regarding energy production policy. In addition to being questioned about his overall views of the DOE, it is expected that Republicans will ask questions involving the Iranian nuclear deal, funding for fossil energy research, and pipeline policy. The Democrats will likely use the hearing as an opportunity to press the Trump administration on nuclear waste policy, climate policy, continuation of alternative energy subsidies and tax credits, as well as oil and gas extraction issues.

Department of the Interior

Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke has been nominated for the Secretary of the Interior, and his nomination hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will be held Tuesday January 17. Congressman Zinke is former state senator and a 23-year U.S. Navy SEAL veteran. Congressman Zinke was elected in 2014 and serves on the House Natural Resources Committee.

While Congressman Zinke does not appear to be controversial as an individual, he is taking over a Department with a number of controversial issues surrounding it, such as the recent expansion of national monuments in energy-rich states, energy extraction issues on federal lands, and recent regulations enacted by the Obama administration, such as the Stream Protection Rule from the Office of Surface Mining. Congressman Zinke is occasionally at odds with his Republican colleagues over the management of federal lands. Many Republicans support the idea of selling additional federal lands to the public or transferring them to the states. This issue will surface during his confirmation hearing, because Congressman Zinke has defended keeping federal lands in the possession of the U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, nominated for Administrator of the EPA, will face the most hostile confirmation of the three on Wednesday, January 18 before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Pruitt is in the crosshairs of the environmental community and Senate Democrats not only as a proxy for President-elect Trump, but also for his positions on a number of environmental issues.

The most controversial issue facing Pruitt is his leading role in the litigation against the EPA on President Obama’s signature climate regulation, the Clean Power Plan. Pruitt helped spearhead the 29 states who sued the EPA, and his detractors claim that makes him unfit to lead the agency. Based upon prehearing questions submitted to the nominee, the Democrats intend to use the hearing to attack Pruitt, and in turn Trump, on their views on climate change and climate science, including how Pruitt plans to address the legal underpinnings of EPA’s climate action program, the 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA decision and EPA’s 2009 “Endangerment Finding.” Additionally, there are a number of issues likely to surface during the hearing, such as the recent methane regulations for the oil and gas industry, hydraulic fracturing, the Waters of the U.S. rule, and the enforcement policies of the EPA. As for enforcement, EPA’s National Enforcement Initiative has targeted the “energy extraction industry” for several years. The energy extraction industry enforcement initiative may also be a subject of the hearings. Pruitt has been a proponent of cooperative federalism, and is sure to face questions about the respective roles of EPA and the states in developing and enforcing regulations to protect human health and the environment. Pruitt’s track record as Oklahoma AG will also be scrutinized, including his role in addressing the dispute among the states of Oklahoma and Arkansas and the poultry industry concerning nutrient levels in the Illinois River watershed and other scenic rivers. The Democrats have requested a second day of hearings in order to call outside witnesses to speak to Pruitt’s record, which was denied by the Republican majority.

Next Steps

After the confirmation hearings, each committee must vote on the nominees before the full Senate can confirm them. While it is possible that both Perry and Zinke could be confirmed right away, it is expected that the Democrats will draw out the process for Pruitt at least until the following week—and maybe longer. All three are expected to be confirmed by the Senate, barring any last minute revelations, particularly since only a simple majority of the full Senate is required, and the Republicans hold a 52-48 advantage.

The confirmation hearings will also see additional issues surface, such as the recent Obama regulations. The Republicans intend to utilize a procedure called the Congressional Review Act, which allows them to veto any major regulation issued since last July. Squarely on the chopping block are the Department of the Interior’s Stream Protection regulation and the EPA’s oil and gas methane regulations, a revision to the Cross State Air Pollution Rule and heavy duty vehicle emission standards. Expect members of both parties to use the confirmation hearing as a platform to support or attack these regulations. Votes to overturn them both are expected in the next 30 days.

These confirmation hearings will not only be an opportunity to better understand the direction of the Trump administration on energy and environmental issues, but they will also illustrate the battle lines being drawn in Congress.

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