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Lawmakers zero in on science, transparency as EPA chief takes center stage

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt's first appearance before Congress since his confirmation in February started off with a groan-inducing joke from Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., who quipped that he would have thought a proud Oklahoman would have been there "sooner."

While the gathered lawmakers could get behind laughing at the painful pun, partisanship soon took over the hearing as Republicans lauded Pruitt's new "Back to Basics" agenda, and Democrats criticized his efforts to repeal environmental protections and overhaul the agency's science advisory boards. The hearing was split into a morning and afternoon session, with Pruitt appearing for just one hour in the morning before he had to leave for a meeting with the president at the White House.

Many Republicans took the opportunity to question Pruitt about the status of Superfund sites specific to their constituencies, and others questioned his handling of the recently updated Toxic Substances Control Act.

Pruitt described his skeleton staff of Senate-approved officials to Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore. While a couple of nominees are awaiting confirmation by the Senate, Pruitt said only William Wehrum has been confirmed and assumed the position of assistant administrator for air and radiation in November. "Wow," Walden responded.

Nevertheless, Pruitt said that Wehrum has hit the ground running at the agency and is leading task forces on EPA's new source review program and background ozone pollution review. Pruitt said both of those regulatory programs need more clarity, and his agency is hoping to provide that through the review.

The questions then got a bit tougher, with Tonko asking Pruitt about his dismissal of EPA science advisors that receive agency grants, a move that was widely panned by scientists, Democrats and other environmental stakeholders. The New York lawmaker also asked Pruitt to commit to making the agency's science publicly available, especially science about climate change.

Pruitt said that science is essential to EPA's many programs, such as the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, pesticide reviews and other programs. "It remains central and core to what we do," Pruitt promised.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, later encouraged Pruitt to review the agency's finding that carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations. EPA has used the endangerment finding to regulate greenhouse gases, but Pruitt has faced mounting pressure from critics of the previous administration's Clean Power Plan and other environmental policies to overturn that finding.

Pruitt once again declined to say what the fate of the endangerment finding might be under his leadership but criticized the Obama administration for using the science of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change rather than the EPA's own science to make that finding. "There was a breach of process," Pruitt said.

Barton further questioned Pruitt on his plans for a "red team/blue team" review of climate science. Pruitt said the plan is still in motion and that he plans to release more details on that event in January 2018.

"That would be a process that would be focused on objective and transparent, real-time review of questions and answers around this issue of CO2," Pruitt said. "I think one of the most important things we can do for the American people is provide that type of discussion because it hasn't happened at the agency."

Pruitt also said the Clean Power Plan would be replaced, but the matter was abruptly cut off as time expired.

Several lawmakers were left unsatisfied with Pruitt's answers, claiming he was being evasive and refusing to directly answer questions. Pruitt is expected to face more hard questions when the hearing resumes later.

Following the morning session, Tonko and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., accused the White House of deliberately interrupting the long-sought hearing for a meeting on the renewable fuel standard that could have been scheduled another time.

"There's no reason to pull someone to the White House when they know this has been a long-awaited visit," Tonko told reporters. "It's unnecessary to have this break in the action when there are so many people who waved on to the subcommittee today so that they could ask questions that are important to their districts or to this nation. There's a lot of information we need. This was a golden opportunity."

Pallone also criticized the EPA for failing to respond to congressional requests for information or technical assistance, a frequent gripe of Democrats who say the agency is not allowing proper oversight. Pallone said the situation has not improved since his colleagues in the Senate complained about it in June, and he suspects Republicans are being similarly stonewalled by the agency.

"It hasn't improved, it's been awful. It's very rare that when we send a letter and we ask for documentation or we ask for technical assistance when we're considering a bill that we get a response. Almost never," Pallone said. But Pallone revealed that Pruitt assured him in a recent meeting that EPA would be more responsive going forward.