Trump’s air nominee hasn’t read the endangerment finding

Source: Niina Heikkinen, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, October 27, 2017

Bill Wehrum has some reading to catch up on.

President Trump’s nominee to head U.S. EPA’s air office says he has never read the endangerment finding for greenhouse gases. That scientific decision, issued by the Obama administration, finds that gases like carbon dioxide and methane are harmful to human health and welfare. It forms the basis of EPA’s climate regulations.

Yesterday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced Wehrum’s nomination, along with three other EPA nominees, on to a full Senate vote.

If he is confirmed, Wehrum — now an industry attorney at Hunton & Williams LLP — will come into the agency as it faces increasing pressure from certain conservatives to scrap the endangerment finding. As assistant administrator of the air office, Wehrum would be closely involved with EPA’s response. Groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have submitted formal petitions to EPA this year to prompt the agency to reconsider the finding.

Wehrum would have to finally delve into the 2009 document.

The text of the finding published in the Federal Register is 52 pages long. But a technical support document is an additional 210 pages, and appendices and EPA’s response to comments are hundreds of pages long.

Wehrum revealed he had not read the finding, or the “record prepared in support of the finding,” in responses to written questions for the record from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) during his confirmation process.

Whitehouse had asked Wehrum whether he agreed with the endangerment finding and if he would commit to “not take any steps to narrow the scope or otherwise weaken the endangerment finding.”

Wehrum wrote, “I have not read the endangerment finding or the record prepared in support of the finding. Therefore, I currently do not have a view. Otherwise, I cannot prejudge any decision that might be made by EPA if I am confirmed.”

That response raised some eyebrows.

“The person charged with protecting Americans’ health and safety through the Clean Air Act had best know the most important Supreme Court case in that statute’s history and how the EPA implemented it,” Whitehouse told E&E News in a statement. He was referring to the case Massachusetts v. EPA, which determined that EPA could regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act and set the stage for the endangerment finding.

“An airline wouldn’t hire a pilot who says ‘I don’t know how to land a plane, but I look forward to learning on the job,'” Whitehouse added.

“It is hard to believe Bill Wehrum is the blank slate on endangerment that he pretends to be,” David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an email.

Wehrum has a reputation for being one of the top Clean Air Act lawyers in the country, and he’s represented industries and trade associations in court, including the American Petroleum Institute. He was previously the acting boss of EPA’s air office during the George W. Bush administration. He was nominated for the job but never confirmed.

Some of Wehrum’s former colleagues said he only would have had to read the endangerment finding if he had represented clients who had commented on it or challenged it.

“I would be surprised if he had read it; it’s a very science-heavy document,” said Jeff Holmstead, an attorney for Bracewell LLP. “I have to confess, I haven’t read it.”

Wehrum worked as legal counsel under Holmstead when Holmstead led the air office during the Bush administration.

“Just knowing Bill, I’m very confident that all of his answers to the [questions for the record] are very honest and carefully written,” Holmstead added.

Robert Meyers, the senior counsel at Crowell & Moring LLP who also worked with Wehrum in EPA’s air office, agreed it was unlikely Wehrum would have read the full endangerment finding.

“You work on those issues and matters that your clients want you to work on,” Meyers said. “The Clean Air Act is huge and multi-varied; if you practice in the Clean Air Act, you can’t possibly cover everything.”

Wehrum has argued that he does not think EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, which he said was meant to control different kinds of air pollutants (Climatewire, Sept. 8).

Wehrum also echoed his likely future boss, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, when asked about his views on the causes of climate change.

“I believe the degree to which manmade GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions are contributing to climate change has not been conclusively determined,” he wrote in response to a separate question from Whitehouse.

Wehrum’s nomination to the air office was initially met with resistance from both Republicans and Democrats over his record on the renewable fuel standard. By yesterday morning, all Republicans on the committee voted in favor of his nomination.

Democrats, meanwhile, voiced their continued trepidation about the nominee after a roll call vote on Wehrum’s nomination.

“I’m concerned that during this process, Mr. Wehrum mischaracterized his records on the bipartisan renewable fuel program when he testified, as well as in his written responses,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.). “He claimed to be unfamiliar with the RFS, despite having led litigation related to the program for organizations like the American Petroleum Institute at least four times.”

Meyers described Wehrum as a uniquely qualified and skilled lawyer who would do a “great job” at an office with a heavy workload dealing with everything from hazardous air pollutants and managerial duties to rolling back the Obama-era Clean Power Plan.

“You need someone like Bill who not only has the background but the experience to manage the workflow,” Meyers said.