OMAHA (DTN) -- EPA Administrator nominee Michael Regan said he wants to strike a balance between government regulation on the environment and stakeholder input about life on the ground.
During an hours-long hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Wednesday, Regan was quizzed by senators about how he would handle as EPA administrator, the waters of the United States and the Renewable Fuel Standard.
Changes in the Clean Water Act dating back to 2015 and again in 2020 have led to many court challenges and wild swings in the regulatory pendulum. Additionally, the RFS has faced inconsistency in its implementation, including in the small-refinery exemption program, as well as numerous legal challenges.
Most recently, the Trump administration replaced the 2015 waters of the United States rule with the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which is largely supported by agriculture. At the same time, Trump's EPA granted 88 small-refinery exemptions starting in 2016.
Regan said he understands farmers' concerns based on his experience as secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.
"I also don't want to lose the opportunity to take a look at what we've learned with the Obama era," Regan said.
"I've been on the receiving end of both. I've had conversations with farmers about both. And I think that we do have a clear opportunity to look at how we protect our water quality, while not overburdening small farmers. And so, while we're looking at all of our opportunities through the legal system, I don't want litigation to stifle what we can come up with as stakeholders having a conversation."
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said the previous two administrations faced rebukes from federal courts on how EPA operated the RFS program, in particular when it came to handling small-refinery exemptions.
"I wanted to talk about small refineries. Unlike large oil refineries, the small refineries don't have the economies of scale to comply with our nation's biofuel mandate, the Renewable Fuel Standard," Barrasso said.
"That's why Congress allows small refineries to petition the EPA for what's known as hardship relief. This has been going on, and this is in law."
Leading up to the hearing, the Renewable Fuels Association called for Regan's confirmation as a first step to changing the way the EPA handles the RFS.
"We look forward to working with Administrator-designee Regan to resolve the numerous biofuels-related issues that were mishandled and left unresolved by the last administration," RFA President and CEO Geoff Cooper said in a letter to the committee.
"The renewable fuels sector is eager to work together and do our part to better protect our nation's environment."
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said when Regan takes the reins at EPA, he will have a number of RFS issues to handle.
That includes finalizing renewable volume obligations in the RFS for 2021, pending cellulosic ethanol petitions and requests from governors to waive the RFS because of COVID-19.
"EPA really does need to step in and provide guidance," Ernst said. "So, how will you ensure that these important matters, which really do have an outsized impact on many states like Iowa and for a number of these states in the middle of the country, how will you look at this and make sure that they get handled in a way that provides further economic opportunity?"
Regan told the committee his EPA will need to review how it has handled the RFS and the next steps forward.
"RFS is definitely a priority for this administration," he said.
"There are a number of things that are caught up in litigation," Regan said. "There are a number of things that we need more transparency around how we arrived to those decisions. And we need to be sure that the agency actually applied the latest data, the latest science, and followed the letter of the law in some of the decisions that have been made. So, we plan to do a thorough review of all of the decisions that fit under the umbrella of the RFS."
Ernst said establishing transparency at EPA would be an important part of Regan's duties.
"(Transparency is) a very important first step, and hopefully we continue to work beyond that," she said. "Transparency is something that we have felt has been lacking."
WATERS OF THE UNITED STATES
When it comes to the waters of the United States definitions, as secretary of the NCDEQ, Regan objected to the Trump administration's Navigable Waters Protection Rule.
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., asked Regan whether he supports a new WOTUS rule similar to the 2015 rule that agriculture and other industries fought in court.
"There are a lot of lessons learned, pragmatic experiences or pragmatic solutions that we've learned from experiences," Regan said.
"I spent a lot of time with a lot of small farmers. I spent a lot of time with a lot of environmental groups, and what I would say is I'm looking forward to convening multiple stakeholder groups on how we chart a path forward. I don't believe that we have to sacrifice water quality at the expense of making sure that farmers, especially small farmers, have a fighting chance in this economy. I believe that you can do both. So what I'm hopeful for is that we can look for a common ground where we give the farming community and the environmental community some certainty that, as we move forward, we're going to follow the science, follow the law."
Regan said he understands it is "difficult for any kind of federal regulation to truly address the unique agricultural needs" of different regions.
"So, I want a rule that moves forward, that's not overly burdensome, but gives the states the flexibility to protect water quality and protect the local agricultural economy," he said.
"We're going to have an open-door policy. And I want to hear from our farming community; I want to hear about the administrative burdens that they felt they suffered as a result of some of what they call definitions that they did not understand."
Ernst said the farm community remains concerned the Biden administration would rescind the Navigable Water Protection Rule that made changes helpful to agriculture.
"I plan to take a look at what our options are to address any kind of lingering concerns, whether that be litigious or concerns with the community," Regan said.
Todd Neeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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