Trump riles Dems with pick for powerful EPA job

Trump riles Dems with pick for powerful EPA job
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William Wehrum, an energy industry attorney and former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official, has been tapped to fulfill one of the agency’s most consequential roles.

President Trump formally nominated Wehrum Thursday to be the EPA’s assistant administrator for air and radiation, where he would oversee a massive portfolio concerned with air pollution, climate change, auto regulation and more. 

If confirmed by the Senate, Wehrum would become one of the most powerful people at the 15,000-person agency behind Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: EPA halts surprise inspections of power, chemical plants | Regulators decline to ban pesticide linked to brain damage | NY awards country's largest offshore wind energy contracts EPA allows continued use of pesticide linked with brain damage Overnight Energy: Trump officials gut DC staff for public lands agency to move West | Democrats slam EPA over scientific boards | Deepwater Horizon most litigated environmental issue of decade MORE

He would be responsible for the bulk of a massive deregulatory push by the Trump administration that involves rolling back or potentially revising rules on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, methane emissions from the oil and natural gas sector, ozone pollution and mercury, among other rules. Most of the regulations were written by the Obama administration. 

Wehrum would also have a wide-ranging portfolio of responsibilities under the Clean Air Act, like the requirement to reevaluate major regulations on air quality every five years.

“When it comes to public health, cleaning up the air and dealing with climate are incredibly important,” said Janet McCabe, who led the air office in an acting capacity under former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMichelle Obama weighs in on Trump, 'Squad' feud: 'Not my America or your America. It's our America' Media cried wolf: Calling every Republican a racist lost its bite Rubio criticizes reporters, Democrat for racism accusations against McCain MORE from 2013 to 2017. “And whoever is sitting in that chair has a significant opportunity to help move the clean air and public health agenda forward.”

Wehrum’s nomination was quickly denounced by environmentalists and Democrats, who predict he would use his power at the EPA to grant the wishes of industry and polluters while weakening regulations and enforcement. 

But those industries see Wehrum as a welcome reprieve who will bring common sense to air regulation. 

Wehrum did not respond to an interview request.

This is Wehrum’s second shot at the air administrator job. He was acting air administrator from 2005 to 2007 under former President George W. Bush.

Bush formally nominated Wehrum for the post in 2006. But Senate Democrats, led by then-chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerOnly four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates Hispanic civil rights icon endorses Harris for president California AG Becerra included in Bloomberg 50 list MORE (D-Calif.), pledged to block his confirmation, so his name was eventually withdrawn.

Boxer called Wehrum “extremely troubling” at the time, with a record that “demonstrates a pattern of discounting health impacts, ignoring scientific findings and substituting industry positions for the clear intent of Congress.”

Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperFighting the opioid epidemic: Congress can't just pass laws, but must also push to enforce them Overnight Energy: Scientists flee USDA as research agencies move to Kansas City area | Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules to put industry reps on boards | New rule to limit ability to appeal pollution permits Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules when appointing industry leaders to science boards MORE (D-Del.), who now leads the minority Democrats on the Environment Committee, said he and his colleagues plan to fight Wehrum’s nomination just as hard as they did a decade ago.

“I don’t think his record of weakening air pollution standards and deferring to industry on public health protections makes his nomination any more acceptable in 2017,” he said in a statement.

“Regardless of the candidate, though, Mr. Pruitt must follow through with the answers he assured us he would provide this committee during his own confirmation process before we move any additional EPA nominees.”

Wehrum now works at the law firm Hunton & Williams. His clients have included American Petroleum Institute, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, the American Chemistry Council and the National Association of Manufacturers, all of which waged litigation battles against Obama’s EPA.

Jeff Holmstead, who preceded Wehrum as air administrator and hired him as his counsel, said Trump made a great pick. 

“I don’t think they could have made a better choice,” said Holmstead, who now works at the law and lobbying firm Bracewell for various industry clients.

“The Pruitt EPA has a very ambitious agenda, and a lot of those things have to do with the Clean Air Act. And I think Bill will be about to implement those in a way that’s consistent with the law and congressional intent.”

Holmstead said that although the EPA has started some big deregulatory actions in areas like the Clean Power Plan and methane standards for oil and natural gas, the agency has been “hamstrung” by a lack of leaders in Senate-confirmed posts. Pruitt is the only Senate-confirmed official at the EPA, and a handful of others have been nominated.

“He really is committed to the rule of law. And I think what you will see from him is much more traditional, middle-of-the-road environmental regulation, and a lot of regulatory reforms,” Holmstead said. 

Wehrum’s detractors point to what they see as industry-friendly regulatory actions that he took during the Bush administration, some of which were later overturned in court. 

Wehrum has also expressed doubt that the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, despite the Supreme Court’s 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA decision stating otherwise. 

He helped write a rule to limit mercury pollution from power plants, but it allowed companies to trade pollution credits. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned it in 2008, saying that the EPA should have used a more stringent section of the law. 

“When Bill Wehrum was at the EPA before, time after time, he was in a leadership role in efforts to weaken clean air protections. And time after time, these attempts were thrown out in court,” said David Baron, an Earthjustice attorney who specializes in air pollution.

“There’s little question he can be expected to fully carry out the Trump-Pruitt agenda of dismantling the clean air and climate protections that have been developed over the last administration, and really the last 40 years of the Clean Air Act,” he said.

Mike Danylak, spokesman for Environment Committee Chairman John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator EPA hails Trump's work on reducing air pollution House passes bill to crack down on toxic 'forever chemicals' MORE (R-Wyo.), said the chairman welcomes Wehrum’s nomination. 

“Chairman Barrasso knows that Administrator Pruitt needs his full leadership team in place at the EPA in order to ensure America has clean air, land, and water. The committee looks forward to considering Mr. Wehrum’s nomination as well as the other recently nominated assistant administrators of the EPA.”