EPA nominee doesn’t think agency should regulate GHGs

Source: Niina Heikkinen, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, September 11, 2017

President Trump’s pick to lead U.S. EPA’s air office doesn’t believe the agency should be regulating carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act.

Bill Wehrum, the nominee to be assistant administrator of the Office of Air and Radiation, thinks Congress hasn’t given EPA the authority to control carbon dioxide emissions. His views put him in line with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and place him at odds with those who would like to see EPA pursue aggressive climate change rules.

The White House formally announced Wehrum’s nomination to lead the air office late yesterday. His selection had been widely anticipated, and he’s now one of just a handful of people to be named to positions within the agency that require Senate confirmation.

Wehrum, now an attorney at Hunton & Williams LLP, will be returning to EPA if he’s confirmed.

He worked as the top legal counsel for then-air chief Jeff Holmstead during the George W. Bush administration. He was nominated to become air chief but was never confirmed due to Democratic opposition to that administration’s air policies.

If confirmed, Wehrum will play a key role in rolling back the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan and determining the future of regulations controlling greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry and automobiles.

He believes “that Congress never intended the EPA to address an issue such as climate change under the Clean Air Act,” Wehrum told Law360 in a 2013 interview. “The act clearly is designed to deal with very different kinds of pollution and very different kinds of health and environmental effects.”

Pruitt made similar remarks in July. He told Reuters that “the Clean Air Act was truly set up to address local and regional air pollutants.”

Industry ties

Wehrum has decades of experience as an attorney specializing in the Clean Air Act. During his stint in the Bush EPA, he helped shape policy on issues ranging from emissions from diesel engines and automobiles to air pollution from power plants.

“Bill is one of the most substantively capable clean air policy lawyers out there. He is an analytical workhorse,” said James Connaughton, the environment adviser for President George W. Bush while Wehrum was at EPA.

Connaughton described Wehrum as a “lawyer’s lawyer” who is deeply familiar with the Clean Air Act and programs at EPA and seeks to understand all sides of a given issue.

“He’s not dogmatic in any particular way,” Connaughton said.

Like other Trump administration picks, Wehrum has strong ties to industries he could soon be tasked with regulating.

He currently leads the administrative law group at Hunton & Williams, where he represents utility clients as well as companies and trade associations in the oil and gas sector, chemical manufacturing and minerals processing. The law firm has a reputation for combating environmental regulations.

Wehrum started his career as a chemical engineer, and the experience helped frame his focus in environmental law. During his confirmation hearing to become assistant administrator of the air office in 2006, he explained that the regulations he saw on the job appeared to have been written without a clear understanding of how the rules would function in practice.

“I became acutely aware of the need for clear and concise rules,” he told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Wehrum began attending night classes at the Widener University School of Law while still working as a chemical engineer by day, so that he could eventually begin practicing environmental law.

He added that his interest in clean air was also personal: As a runner who frequently ran alongside roads in Washington, D.C., he appreciated firsthand the progress made to limit air pollution and the work that still needed to be done.

Manner shouldn’t ‘be mistaken for moderation’

A former EPA official described Wehrum as “a very thoughtful person” who reacts “more to logic than emotion.”

“He’s going into it for all the right reasons, I think. This is not a resume builder for Bill; he’s basically going back to the job he had before,” the official said. “I think he is going into it because he wants the agency to work.”

Another former EPA official said Wehrum is more conservative than Holmstead, who brought him into the agency initially as his counsel.

“He’s a smart and tough guy. He has a quiet manner that should not be mistaken for moderation,” the official said. “He will probably get along well with Pruitt.”

Some sources critical of Wehrum’s work pointed out that he and Holmstead have had a poor record when their efforts to control pollution have been challenged in court.

They also broadly criticized the Bush administration for its failure to address greenhouse gas emissions. Regulations addressing climate change were largely absent during Wehrum’s tenure at the agency. The Trump administration so far seems to be following a similar path through its exit from the Paris Agreement, rollback of the Clean Power Plan and stay of methane regulations for the oil and gas industry and landfills.

Wehrum was at EPA long enough to see the Bush administration’s interpretation that the Clean Air Act didn’t cover greenhouse gases overturned in the Massachusetts v. EPA 2007 Supreme Court decision. He was involved with initial agency discussions about the decision, which continued after he left.

One former official said that Wehrum would follow the data in his response to climate change.

“He has an analytical mind. It’s a matter of proof and evidence, and I think he would tend to go where that led him,” the former official said.

Wehrum may have to face some of the same objections to his tenure at EPA that he faced during his failed confirmation process to lead the air office. Senate Democrats sharply opposed his nomination, and the president eventually withdrew his nomination.

“Mr. Wehrum’s record at EPA has demonstrated to me a pattern of discounting health impacts and ignoring scientific findings, and substituting industry positions for the clear intent of Congress,” then-Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said at an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing in 2006.

Wehrum’s supporters expect he’ll be well-received at an agency where the new political team is largely composed of appointees with little or no previous experience at EPA.

“I think the staff will welcome him; in fact, I’m sure of it,” said a former EPA official.

Reporter Robin Bravender contributed.