EPA targets 3 big Obama rules after Pruitt exit

Source: Robin Bravender and Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporters • Posted: Thursday, September 6, 2018

In rapid succession, the Trump administration last month took aim at a trio of President Obama’s biggest air pollution and climate change rules.

EPA signaled last week that it will overhaul Obama’s toxic air pollution limits for power plants. That came on the heels of announcements earlier in August that the agency is moving to ease fuel efficiency standards for cars and to issue a weaker version of Obama’s signature climate change rule for electric utilities.

With legal challenges ahead for the administration’s policies, EPA is racing to finalize some of its biggest priorities to give its lawyers time to defend them in court. The actions take aim at Obama’s legacy. They also lay the groundwork for policies that could be among Trump’s most significant moves on the environment.

“It’s been a very active summer at EPA with all these different initiatives. It’s been a lot to keep up with,” said Sean Hecht, co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA.

EPA announced last week that it will reconsider a contentious Obama-era rule that restricts mercury and toxic air emissions from power plants (known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS). The Obama team touted that regulation as one of its biggest moves to safeguard public health, and large utilities already comply. But some coal-fired power plants see the Trump EPA’s move as a way to avoid more stringent future regulations (Greenwire, Aug. 30).

Earlier in August, EPA moved to dismantle both the Obama-era clean car rules and the Clean Power Plan in what Obama EPA air chief Janet McCabe described as a “one-two punch for the climate” (Climatewire, Aug. 24).

“It does seem that this Administration has targeted all of the significant health protective rules promulgated by the prior Administration, and is determined to undo them,” McCabe told E&E News last week in an email.

EPA’s own analysis suggests that replacing Obama’s climate standards for cars and power plants with Trump’s proposals would increase carbon emissions by as much as 141 million metric tons in 2030 — the equivalent of running around 35 coal-fired power plants for a year.

“Certainly the clean cars rule and the Clean Power Plan were the two most important actions by the Obama administration to reduce greenhouse gases. The MATS rule would have important collateral benefits for reducing greenhouse gases,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “So together, these are extremely damaging actions, if they actually proceed.”

Delays under Pruitt?

The rapid-fire moves have come since Andrew Wheeler took over for Scott Pruitt as EPA chief in early July. The departure of the ex-EPA leader — who left the agency amid a torrent of scandal allegations — may have affected the timing of EPA’s policy rollouts.

“I do think that the Pruitt problems caused some delays,” said Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who led Trump’s EPA transition team. “There were just people who weren’t able to spend their time working on substantive stuff.”

But Ebell and others say looming litigation and a push to come through on Trump’s campaign promises were likely bigger factors than Pruitt’s exit.

“I think there has been a dawning recognition since about late winter, early spring that they’ve been falling behind on some of these things and if they don’t pick up the pace they’re not going to get them all litigated in the next two years,” Ebell said.

John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council said Trump’s EPA under Pruitt likely would have had “an identical or near-identical schedule” in August.

He attributed the flurry of activity to EPA’s air chief, Bill Wehrum, who was nominated to lead the air office by President George W. Bush but wasn’t confirmed during that administration. Under Trump, he’s made headway on some of his biggest priorities.

“In many ways, I just see this as the eighth or ninth month of Bill Wehrum heading the air office and having had time to develop these concerted attacks on marquee Obama EPA achievements,” Walke said. “None of these things just magically sprang from dust in August, they have been worked on for a very long time under orders from Wehrum and Pruitt, presumably.”

Jeff Holmstead, an industry attorney at Bracewell who worked with Wehrum in EPA’s air office during the Bush administration, said, “The people right around Pruitt were pretty much focused on everything that was going on with him, but the air office was continuing to go about its business.”

Hecht of UCLA said it’s typical for administrations to release several major initiatives at this point in a presidency with an eye toward defending the proposals in court.

“There are typically regulatory initiatives in progress, and the president doesn’t want there to be a disruption if the next president is of the other party,” he said.

Litigation is “the whole game from now until the end of this administration’s term,” Walke said.

“Everything proceeds backward from that fact, and I think it’s an even more interesting motivation than your ordinary first-term administration,” he added. “The first term of the Bush administration and the Obama administration did not proceed with the same frenzied energy as the Trump administration.”