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Deregulator Pruitt Resigns at EPA; Undermined RFS

President Trump announced the resignation of scandal-plagued Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator on Thursday and said the interim chief, Andrew Wheeler, "will continue with our great and lasting EPA agenda." Pruitt was applauded in rural America for carrying out Trump's promises of regulatory relief but criticized for undermining the mandate to mix corn ethanol into the fuel supply for cars and pickup trucks.

"That sound you hear is a collective sigh of relief from the Midwest," said Bob Dinneen of the trade group Renewable Fuels Association. "For the past year, Scott Pruitt had been waging war against the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), the biofuels industry and the millions of farmers and rural Americans who helped Donald Trump get elected."

From the start, farm groups and ethanol makers were skeptical of Pruitt, the attorney general for oil state Oklahoma before his appointment to head EPA. Pruitt was a leader in efforts to muzzle the RFS through activities that ranged from proposals to cap the price of the credits, called RINs, that refiners must buy if they don't mix enough ethanol into gasoline, suggestions that ethanol exports could count toward the RFS target for domestic use of biofuels, and secretive grants of "hardship" waivers to small-volume refineries from complying with RFS.

“President Trump made the right decision," said Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a prominent supporter of corn ethanol. "Administrator Pruitt’s ethical scandals and his undermining of the president’s commitment to biofuels and Midwest farmers were distracting from the agency’s otherwise strong progress to free the nation of burdensome and harmful government regulations."

The largest U.S. farm group, the American Farm Bureau Federation, said it was confident that Wheeler, as acting administrator, "will continue the good work the agency has been doing on the Waters of the United States rule." Known as WOTUS, the regulation issued by the Obama administration spelled out the upstream reach of federal clean waters laws. Farm groups fought WOTUS as federal over-reach that would regulate dry ditches although the EPA said it restored limits in place in the Reagan era.

Trump announced Pruitt's departure on social media and said Wheeler, formerly a coal-industry lobbyist who was the EPA deputy administrator, will begin work on Monday as interim EPA leader. Trump gave no reason for Pruitt's departure. "I have accepted the resignation of Scott Pruitt as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Within the Agency Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this," tweeted the president. " I have no doubt that Andy will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda. We have made tremendous progress and the future of the EPA is very bright!"

Pruitt was lambasted for lavish spending on travel, assigning EPA employees to tasks such as searching for a high-paying job for his wife, and arranging to pay $50 a night - well below the usual rate for Capitol Hill - to stay at a condo owned by a lobbyist.

"Pruitt’s tenure has been an abomination," said Vermont Rep. Peter Welch, a senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees environmental law. "His legacy will be one of arrogance, misuse of taxpayer funds, and dismantlement of EPA’s core mission to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink.”

The EPA is due to announce in November the RFS for 2019. It has proposed a corn ethanol mandate of 15 billion gallons, the same as this year and the maximum allowed by a 2007 energy law. The biofuels industry faulted the proposal because it did not offset the impact of the hardship waivers on ethanol demand. 

An oil industry spokesman said biofuels advocates were gloating unduly over Pruitt's departure by linking it to their drive for approval of year-round sales of E-15, a 15 percent blend of ethanol into gasoline. "Can't imagine this statement is going to go over well with the White House and other EPA officials" who come from oil states or wear well with oil state senators, said the oil spokesman, pointing to RFA's description of Pruitt "waging war" against the RFS.

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