The embattled director of the Environmental Protection Agency was in Nebraska on Thursday to talk about the administration’s new Waters of the United States rule.
But he faced pointed questions about another issue important to Nebraska farmers — ethanol — and he didn’t address recent criticism about a string of ethics issues.
Scott Pruitt met with a group called Common Sense Nebraska at the Nebraska Farm Bureau headquarters in Lincoln. The meeting was open to news media but closed to the public.
“The voice of the farmers and ranchers across this country should be heard loud and clear because you’re the first environmentalists, you’re the first conservationists,” he told them.
Pruitt did not take questions from the press after the event.
He told the group that the EPA on Friday plans to propose a new set of rules about what constitutes a Water of the United States and therefore is subject to federal regulations. A previous proposal under then-President Barack Obama received intense criticism from agriculture groups that said it went too far. Pruitt described the upcoming proposal as “regulatory reform” rather than “deregulation.”
Pruitt said the proposal must go to the Office of Management and Budget before it will become public and open for comment. He did not go into detail about the proposal, but he did say groundwater would not be considered a Water of the United States, as it was in the previous proposal.
While that change is popular with many ag groups, Pruitt’s stance on ethanol is not.
In particular, the Nebraska Farm Bureau and others want to see Pruitt issue a waiver that allows E15 fuel to be sold year-round. President Donald Trump has voiced support for doing so.
And they want him to issue fewer waivers allowing refineries to sidestep biofuel blending requirements.
Pruitt said that he supports the E15 requirement and wants to bring stakeholders together to find a solution to the refinery issue. But he said he could not move the ethanol issues forward any faster.
He faced rallies and backlash over ethanol during stops in Kansas and South Dakota.
He’s also received intense criticism from lawmakers on the Iowa side of the Missouri River. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a fellow Republican, has threatened to call for his resignation if he doesn’t curtail the waivers.
The group here made clear that they share those concerns, but the visit stayed mostly Nebraska Nice. Gov. Pete Ricketts, who was at the meeting, said afterward that he would like to see the administration move faster on the two ethanol issues but that he was happy with Pruitt’s assurances to the group.
“The language was very strong,” Ricketts said. “We heard his full-throated endorsement for E15.”
The meeting’s attendees didn’t bring up Pruitt’s ethics issues, which include allegations about unusual security spending, first-class flights, a sweetheart condo lease and more.
While he was in Nebraska, Pruitt also met with Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert.
His official Twitter account posted: “We’ve had a good visit and discussion at a local wastewater treatment plant followed by a roundtable with Mayor @Jean_Stothert, @NebraskaDEQ, and local officials about #WIFIA loans and @EPAsuperfund. It’s great to be in #Nebraska!”
Stothert didn’t immediately respond to a request for more details.
World-Herald staff writer Emily Nohr contributed to this report, which also includes material from the Associated Press.