Wheeler devised attacks on Calif. years ago with Inhofe

Source: By Jean Chemnick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, November 18, 2019

President Trump isn’t the first boss Andrew Wheeler has helped battle California on the environment.

More than a decade before he would lead this autumn’s siege against California’s regulatory authorities, Wheeler helped Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) score political points against the Golden State on the same set of issues. He was Inhofe’s staff director on the Environment and Public Works Committee at the time.

Inhofe, a staunch anti-regulatory crusader, has for years recounted California’s failings — especially its struggle with national ozone limits — when attacking environmental policies backed by the progressive state and its representatives in Washington.

Wheeler spent nearly 15 years working for Inhofe, the committee or its clean air subcommittee, including six years as staff director for the Oklahoma Republican. Wheeler left the Senate in 2009 to lobby for industry clients.

Inhofe, who lost his chairman’s gavel to California Democrat Barbara Boxer in 2007, was the Senate’s chief defender of the George W. Bush administration’s bid to deprive California of a waiver it needed to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. And he countered Boxer’s pressure campaign against EPA for more stringent air quality rules and greenhouse gas regulations. Her home state’s persistent smog woes were frequently part of that argument.

“It makes no sense to set unnecessarily and unrealistically stringent requirements, but then to excuse areas which will not comply because it is expensive while others that take their commitment seriously suffer job losses and slower growth,” Inhofe said at a June 2006 hearing on EPA plans to revise particulate pollution standards.

“I am thinking in particular of California, which has consistently failed to meet previous standards and has continued to receive exemptions,” Inhofe added.

That argument was replayed recently when Wheeler used his authority as EPA administrator to cite California for failing to meet water and air quality standards. The event sparked criticism from health experts and environmentalists who note that EPA is restricting California’s ability to curtail greenhouse gases and other pollution by loosening federal standards on cars.

Former EPW staffers don’t recall Wheeler having personal animosity for California. In fact, after leaving Inhofe’s staff, he lobbied for the South Coast Air Quality Management District — one of the areas that were out of attainment of National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

One former committee aide said the Golden State’s perceived hypocrisy on environmental issues was a popular refrain for Republicans.

“Andy was part of that conversation throughout the early 2000s,” the former aide said.

Stakeholders with business before the EPW Committee say that as Inhofe’s top aide, Wheeler would have looked for ways to advance the chairman’s message.

“Senators hire legislative directors and staff directors to come up with the ideas,” said Bill Becker, who followed the committee’s work closely when he represented state and local air pollution control agencies.

Early days

In September 2006 — as EPA mulled California’s request to set its own clean car rules to address climate change — Inhofe converted his anti-Golden State rhetoric into legislation. His bill didn’t mention California explicitly, but it was designed to apply to only two areas of the country: the Los Angeles-South Coast air basin and the San Joaquin Valley.

Both had struggled with smog and soot (E&E News PM, Sept. 7, 2006). The measure, which never received a vote, would have withheld highway funding for California and slapped fines on industry in the two areas. EPA would be granted no discretion to waive the penalties because, Inhofe said, it had been too lenient in the past.

“I find it disturbing the EPA would assume that certain states will violate the law,” Inhofe told Bush EPA air officials at the June hearing, which was chaired by Ohio Sen. George Voinovich (R). “But nothing seems to happen. It does in Oklahoma, and it does in Ohio, but not in California. I think we are not getting equal application of these rules.”

California faces a unique set of challenges in limiting ozone and soot. Weather conditions, geographical features that form and trap smog, and a dense car-dependent population exacerbate the effects of air pollution.

Stationary sources like coal-fired power plants and industrial sites aren’t culprits there, as they are in Eastern states. California’s Clean Air Act prerogative to request its own tailpipe emissions standards is a nod to its long battle with smog. California is the only state that can receive such a waiver, and state officials have used it to set the toughest car standards in the nation.

Now the Trump administration is peeling back California’s ability to cut emissions, while also citing the state for failing to clean up its air, critics say.

Inhofe has seldom advocated for stiffer environmental penalties, and his critics saw the 2006 bill as political retaliation against California, which would enact the nation’s first climate change law the same month. The Oklahoma senator would later defend the Bush administration’s 2007 denial of the tailpipe emissions waiver, a move the state argued would exacerbate ozone nonattainment.

Inhofe’s animus for California goes back decades. In 2001, as California faced an electricity shortage caused largely by Enron Corp.’s market manipulation practices, the senator told the Daily Oklahoman: “I have a very difficult time feeling sorry for people in California. They brought it on themselves.”

Whatever Wheeler’s personal views on California, Becker said it was his style to use policy to punish political rivals.

“I’ve seen many examples where Sen. Inhofe — and by association Andy Wheeler — have acted bullyish in retaliation against entities like California that have disagreed with their policies,” he said.

Becker provided this example: After two state and local air pollution associations testified in 2005 against President Bush’s signature air pollution policy — known as Clear Skies — Inhofe’s staff asked them to submit five years of tax returns for review. Becker had served as executive director of both associations. Wheeler told reporters at the time that the committee wasn’t punishing the air regulators for their opposition to Clear Skies, but he wanted to know whether environmental organizations were funding them.

Yes, sir

California has acted as a counterweight to President Trump on the environment by staking out opposing positions on climate change, fossil fuels divestment and the Paris Agreement. Wheeler became the Trump administration’s strategist on air and climate deregulation first as EPA air chief and later as administrator.

He brought something else to the job: years of opposition research against California.

“He definitely worked for his bosses, whoever they were,” said John Bachmann, a former EPA senior air official who interacted with Wheeler in the 1990s, when Wheeler was Inhofe’s chief counsel. “I’m not sure he had a thing for California. I think it’s really clear to me that Trump does now, and I really feel it’s top-down.”

Tensions between the president and the nation’s largest state reached a boiling point in July, when four major auto manufacturers agreed with California that they would voluntarily maintain high fuel economy standards even if EPA and the Department of Transportation relaxed federal clean car rules.

On Aug. 21, Trump tweeted his disdain for “foolish executives” from “politically correct” automakers. EPA quickly rescinded California’s tailpipe emissions waiver — for the first time ever — and worked in tandem with the Department of Justice to produce a suite of legal and disciplinary actions targeting a diverse set of Californian environmental policies.

The four automakers — Ford Motor Co., Honda Motor Co., BMW AG and Volkswagen AG — found themselves the subject of an antitrust investigation by the Department of Justice. DOJ sued the California Air Resources Board (CARB) over a voluntary partnership with Quebec on carbon trading, arguing that the state had usurped federal treaty-making authority. Wheeler served the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission with a notice of violation under the Clean Water Act over concerns that human waste from the city’s sizable homeless population was contaminating the local waterways.

And on Sept. 24, Wheeler borrowed from his old playbook under Inhofe by threatening in a letter to CARB that the state could lose federal highway funding if it didn’t help clear a backlog of ozone plans.

The water and ozone complaints, delivered in the same week, are believed to have originated in Washington with Wheeler and his political advisers. Former EPA career officials say the Region 9 office in San Francisco was blindsided by the actions, which ordinarily would have originated with them.

“The fact that they’re doing it out of the blue, when they didn’t give a damn, and now, all of a sudden, they do — that’s weird,” said Bachmann. “And you don’t do it from the top; you do it from the regional office.”

EPA spokesman Michael Abboud told E&E News in an email that the action against San Francisco “was drafted by Region 9 career staff with input from career staff at EPA.” He said it was based on violations identified during inspections and field visits in 2015 and 2016 “and subsequently gathered information, such as monitoring data.” On the ozone letter, he said the administration had set a “stated goal” of reducing EPA’s backlog of state plans in early 2017.

He didn’t answer a question about whether the decision to issue the citations predated the deal between California and the car companies.

Joseph Goffman, EPA’s senior counsel on air issues under President Obama who later served briefly on EPW’s Democratic staff, said Wheeler appears to be doing for Trump what he did for Inhofe, vis-à-vis California.

“Now he has a new principal who also has a lot of personal and political animosity towards California, and since he already had experience using those tools once, or he has experience trying to weaponize those tools, he already knows how to do that,” he said.

But Goffman said the choice to target California truly originated with Trump.