Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt is facing a torrent of accusations and anger as he tours through the U.S. heartland. Farmers and Midwestern politicians are accusing the official of prioritizing fossil fuel industries over the interests of the region, which has served as a reliable base for President Trump.
Touring through states including Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota this week, Pruitt came under fire repeatedly by constituents for reasons unrelated to his lengthy list of scandals. The subject of at least a dozen federal investigations relating to financial and ethics decisions, Pruitt encountered questions of a very different variety in the Midwest.
“To be honest, Administrator Pruitt, we’re mad as hell,” Kansas farmer Dennis McNich told Pruitt earlier this week. “Today, the American farmer is struggling to make ends meet and our industry is on the cusp of financial ruin in many areas of the country.”
Oil, gas, and coal have seen a favorable reception under the Trump administration, which has rolled back Obama-era initiatives and regulations in favor of fossil fuels. While those moves are in line with the president’s conservative base, farming states argue they’ve come at a cost.
At the center of that contention is ethanol, a crucial source of income for corn-producing states. Under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), oil refiners are required to blend ethanol and biodiesel with petroleum, a requirement the corn industry welcomes and the oil industry has repeatedly lobbied against.
Small refineries are sometimes granted waivers in order to avoid outsized costs under the RFS. But under Pruitt, the EPA has granted a number of controversial waivers, including one to Oklahoma billionaire Carl Icahn. That trend sparked a request from 13 Midwestern senators, including Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), demanding that the EPA cease issuing such waivers.
That hasn’t happened and farmers are angry. “We ain’t going to be played for a sucker. And that’s what they’re trying to do,” Grassley told the New York Times this week.
His comments came after fellow Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst (R) called Pruitt “about as swampy as you get.” A number of other rural Republican lawmakers have similarly slammed Pruitt over seeming favoritism towards oil and gas over corn and agriculture.
“EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is embarrassing President Trump,” reads one ad currently running in the region and backed by the conservative American Future Fund, which is based in Iowa and receives funding from at least one wealthy ethanol producer.
Iowa is not among the states on Pruitt’s agenda this week, but the administrator received an earful in the areas he did visit.
“My personal opinion is farmers are demanding accountability and I think that Mr. Pruitt probably is a dead man walking,” Dane Hicks, the GOP chairman for Anderson County, Kansas, told Politico. “I can’t imagine he rebounds from this in any way to salvage his position. I would expect his resignation soon.”
Kansas Corn Growers Association President Ken McCauley had similarly harsh words. McCauley blasted Pruitt for coming to Kansas to “take a few photos with smiling farmers and tell the President that corn farmers are okay with his actions” rather than addressing the region’s needs.
“When you look at what EPA is doing, they are most definitely picking winners and losers and right now, ethanol is the loser,” McCauley said. He went on to add that the “EPA’s attacks on ethanol don’t just hurt plants like EKAE, they hurt farmers, rural communities, and American consumers who benefit from ethanol with lower prices and cleaner air.”
Displeasure with Pruitt runs deep, but farmers aren’t completely satisfied with Trump either. Ongoing trade feuding between the Trump administration and a number of key trading partners, including Mexico, Canada, China, and the European Union, has sparked retaliatory tariffs predominately targeting the Midwest and the South. One particular source of contention is soybeans, a major export for the region. Responding to aggressive trade threats from Trump, China hit out at U.S. soybeans, threatening a 25 percent tariff and infuriating U.S. farmers in the process.
Trump has also failed to remove gasoline restrictions that limit ethanol amounts, despite promising farmers he would do so. Pruitt has said he supports lifting that restriction, but farmers have expressed frustration and skepticism.
“Agriculture is not very happy with Mr. Pruitt at this point,” said David Fremark, whose family grows and sells products including corn and soybeans in South Dakota.
“He’s done some good things, but this far and away overshadows everything he’s done,” Fremark said.
Pruitt’s visit to Nebraska on Thursday marked his final stop during the tour. It was not immediately clear to what extent the resounding criticism the administrator faced throughout the week would factor into future policy decisions or whether it would hinder his standing with the president.