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Pruitt appears to opt for Clean Power Plan replacement — for now

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt caused a flurry of confusion during a Dec. 7 U.S. House hearing when he said that he would be replacing the Clean Power Plan.

The statement was significant because it was the first time the EPA chief has admitted publicly that he will be replacing the rule he has formally moved to repeal. The agency has previously only committed to issuing an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking to solicit comment on a possible replacement.

Pruitt made the comment during a heated exchange with Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., towards the end of the first portion of a hearing before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's environment subcommittee.

Ruiz was questioning Pruitt about particulate matter in the context of the Clean Power Plan repeal's cost-benefit analysis, which critics have said changed the way the agency views the health impacts of a pollutant that many scientists agree has no acceptable level of exposure.

But before Pruitt could clarify his remarks or provide more detail, the exchange was cut off by committee Chairman John Shimkus of Illinois as time expired. Reporters in the room were left wondering whether Pruitt misspoke and perhaps meant to refer to the advanced notice of proposed rulemaking. With an afternoon session starting in another three hours, many assumed the matter would be revisited. But the issue never came up again.

Pruitt talked briefly about the Clean Power Plan during the afternoon session but mostly offered criticism of the Obama administration's rule rather than his own preference for how it should be replaced. After the hearing concluded, reporters shouted requests for clarification at Pruitt as his security detail ushered him to his car, but he did not respond, and the EPA has not responded to requests for clarification.

Red team/blue team

The EPA's plan to replace the Clean Power Plan surfaced in late July in murmurs from officials close to the administrator. But the agency itself has stayed mum on how it will address carbon emissions from existing fossil fuel power plants, instead offering to solicit feedback when that portion of its regulatory rollback plans are ready.

If Pruitt has in fact decided to replace the Clean Power Plan, the decision is a significant rebuke of far-right voices that have been calling for a review of the EPA's 2009 finding that greenhouse gas emissions endanger human health and welfare. EPA has based its authority to regulate greenhouse gases on that finding, which has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Critics, however, allege that the finding is still flawed and question whether it can be applied to all sources of greenhouse gas pollutants such as power plants.

During the morning session of the hearing, Pruitt was encouraged by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, to reopen that finding. And similar calls were made the day during a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which faced a motion that would have had states pressure the EPA to revisit the finding as well.

The motion was ultimately defeated by a coalition of electric utility groups and companies, which asserted that revisiting the endangerment finding would require the EPA to build a volume of evidence that contradicts climate science, a task the companies felt would be difficult and likely vulnerable to a protracted legal challenge. The companies instead encouraged the EPA, like other power industry stakeholders have, to craft a replacement that would be more in line with the Clean Air Act and require power plants to adopt carbon reduction plans that are specific to a power plant unit.

Pruitt's statement suggested he will not be attempting to review the endangerment finding — at least for now. But Pruitt agreed with Barton that the endangerment finding was flawed because the EPA justified it using findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change rather than the agency's own science. "There was a breach of process," Pruitt told Barton.

In continuing his line of questioning about greenhouse gases, Barton asked for an update on Pruitt's proposal to hold a "red team/blue team" debate on climate science. Pruitt said he is still working on the initiative, insisting that the agency has never conducted a transparent, open dialogue on the science behind climate change and that such a debate is needed. He added that more details on the "red team/blue team" exercise would be available in January.

Whether Pruitt's "red team/blue team" exercise is the beginning of Pruitt's efforts to build that evidence against future agency regulations to address greenhouse gases remains to be seen.