President Trump's nominee to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality faced tough questions at her Senate confirmation hearing today from farm-state Republicans upset about her past criticism of biofuels.
Kathleen Hartnett White, a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, drew fire from Senate Environment and Public Works Committee members over her comments disparaging ethanol and the renewable fuel standard, blaming it for causing food shortages.
"I worry about your lack of understanding of the law," Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) told Hartnett White, saying the nominee had "extremist views" about biofuels.
Hartnett White may find her nomination stalling over farm-state senators' concerns.
Bill Wehrum, picked to lead U.S. EPA's air office, was held up over similar worries until Administrator Scott Pruitt pledged to uphold the biofuels program. Wehrum's confirmation vote is moving forward today.
Fischer noted the RFS "is a huge issue for rural America, and we need to take it seriously." She asked Hartnett White if she wouldn't support opening up the program.
The nominee said she supports Trump's position on biofuels but could not prejudge future actions.
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) also quizzed Hartnett White about the RFS, citing her criticism of the biofuel mandate hurting the food supply.
Hartnett White said, "I second the president. I support his 'all of the above' when it comes to energy sources. I solidly support his support."
She downplayed her criticism of ethanol, saying she had used flawed data in her analysis.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) asked Hartnett White whether she had changed her position on the RFS.
"Yes," Hartnett White said. "All this data is great news."
Andrew Wheeler, nominated to be Pruitt's deputy administrator at EPA, also appeared at today's hearing. He said he would uphold the biofuels program.
"The RFS is the law of the land. I fully support the program," Wheeler said.
Wheeler, once a Republican aide on the EPW panel, was greeted warmly by several senators, including some Democrats. Hartnett White had at times harsher exchanges with members of the committee.
"It seems you don't believe climate change is real," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) to the CEQ nominee, noting her defense of carbon dioxide.
Hartnett White emphasized that her past defense of carbon is it shouldn't be considered a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. She also said it has some influence on the climate but didn't have other pollutants' typical characteristics.
Hartnett White sought to highlight her record as chairwoman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, pointing to her enforcement record as well as reducing ozone pollution in the Houston area.
Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the committee's top Democrat, responded that Hartnett White in the past had questioned the health impacts of ozone, a prime ingredient in smog. He also said the CEQ nominee has compared those who believe in climate change to pagans and communists.
Carper asked Hartnett White whether she believes government officials gathered in Bonn, Germany, this week for climate change talks are "pagans" and "communists." Hartnett White said she was referring to comments from the past executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres.
"No, I do not, senator," Hartnett White said. "Those words are taken out of context."
To kick off the hearing, Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) urged Democrats to move more quickly on Trump's nominees. He said members of the minority party have called for cloture votes on the president's picks, leading to lengthy periods of Senate floor debate that many of them don't attend.
"It's time to end this pointless spectacle," Barrasso said.
He added that the Senate should return to the "Schumer standard," referring to the past agreement between Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) that limited debate on President Obama's nominees (E&E Daily, Nov. 1).
Carper countered that Trump's nominees will move more quickly once EPA becomes more responsive to Democrats' requests for documents.
"We have an administration, Mr. Chairman, that has basically said to heads of agencies that they don't have to respond to committees," Carper said.
Carper noted that EPA "could do better."
"If we get good responses, we can move people," he said.
Reporter Niina Heikkinen contributed.