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Biofuel backers see reset of fortunes after Scott Pruitt departure

EPA chief quits amid mounting ethical scandals

FILE PHOTO: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt takes questions about the Trump administration's withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris climate accords during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S. June 2, 2017.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt takes questions about the Trump administration's withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris climate accords during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S. June 2, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

While it was a series of ethical scandals that led to Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt’s ouster Thursday, prominent Iowa Republicans who increasingly criticized him said they hope the change will bring a fresh start in embracing the nation’s renewable fuel law.

Pruitt was lauded by President Donald Trump for aggressively rolling back environmental regulations — some affecting farmers — they considered overreach.

Yet Pruitt’s brazen conduct puzzled even some of the president’s staunchest supporters.

The spendthrift EPA chief has been a political liability for the White House for months, drawing the attention of federal investigators with scandal after scandal, many of which were linked to his lavish spending of taxpayer money and the use of his position to enrich his family. He leaves the post the target of more than a dozen probes.

The transgressions include Pruitt’s deal with the wife of a top energy lobbyist for deeply discounted housing, huge raises he gave friends against the instructions of the White House and his penchant for flying first class. Pruitt used his office to try to secure his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise and also enlisted aides to try to help her land lucrative work elsewhere. He had a $43,000 secure phone booth installed in his office.

Trump announced Pruitt’s resignation over Twitter on Thursday.

“Truly, your confidence in me has blessed me personally and enabled me to advance your agenda beyond what anyone anticipated at the beginning of your administration,” Pruitt wrote in his resignation to Trump. “However, the unrelenting attacks on me personally, (and) my family, are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us.”

In Iowa, though, it hasn’t been Pruitt’s ethical lapses that have drawn criticism as much as the EPA’s oversight of the Renewable Fuel Standard — the law that requires a certain level of biofuels be blended into the nation’s fuel supply.

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Lawmakers from farm states that produce corn-based ethanol and other biofuels say Pruitt has been undermining promises Trump made about the renewable law during the 2016 campaign.

Under his watch, the EPA has granted waivers worth tens of millions to refineries, exempting them of the fuel blending requirements. Though Trump has expressed support for allowing year-round sales of a higher blend of ethanol, to the delight of biofuel backers, the EPA has not publicized any proposed rules calling for it.

Critics say the moves have dampened demand and hurt farmers.

“President Trump made the right decision. 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,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement.

Grassley and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, both voted for Pruitt’s confirmation after saying they had received assurances on the fuel standard law. And Pruitt did draw praise from many in the agriculture industry and Republican lawmakers in Iowa for suspending the Obama administration’s controversial Waters of the U.S. rule, a measure supposedly clarifying the requirements of the Clean Water Act.

However, the battles over the renewable law left a bad taste with some of the same lawmakers.

In May, Grassley said he was “done playing around” and would join calls for Pruitt’s resignation if the EPA chief did not stop granting waivers. In June, Ernst described Pruitt as “about as swampy as you get.”

In addition to announcing Pruitt’s resignation, the president tweeted that Andrew Wheeler, the EPA’s deputy administrator, would take over as acting administrator.

Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist, but ethanol backers said Thursday they were hopeful that Pruitt’s departure will mean a new start.

“I have confidence that Andrew Wheeler will be a good partner at #EPA and I look forward to working with him on the #RFS,” Ernst tweeted. Grassley said he hoped Wheeler would “restore this administration’s standing with farmers and the biofuels industry.”

Some industry officials said they were hopeful, too.

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“I think it’s a great opportunity for a reset of the conversation,” said Monte Shaw, director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.

The Los Angeles Times contributed.

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