Former EPA staffer says Wheeler lied to Congress

Former EPA staffer says Wheeler lied to Congress

A longtime former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staffer is accusing Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOvernight Energy: Critics worry Trump ignoring plight of honeybees | EPA employee protests union contract while receiving award from Wheeler | Green groups team up to host presidential climate summit EPA employee protests union contract while receiving award from Admin. Wheeler Overnight Energy: Trump threatens veto on defense bill that targets 'forever chemicals' | Republicans form conservation caucus | Pressure mounts against EPA's new FOIA rule MORE of lying in a letter he wrote to Congress Thursday that denied agency staff were shut out as EPA developed a controversial rollback on Obama-era fuel standards.

Critics of the rollback have long contended that the EPA sidelined its Office of Transportation and Air Quality when developing the rule. The office is home to the agency’s in-house lab for testing vehicles emissions.

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Wheeler denied that accusation this week, but Jeff Alson, a former senior policy advisor to that office, said Wheeler is not telling the truth.

“I know that is a lie because I was there. I was one of 20 people at EPA working on this for a decade,” Alson told The Hill. Alson retired in April of last year after working 40 years at the agency.

The issue of sidelined staffers came to a head as lawmakers probed the stalled negotiations between EPA and California, which has long had more stringent standards for vehicle fuel economy and is fighting the EPA rollback.

As lawmakers grilled EPA officials over the failed negotiation, the EPA delivered a letter from Wheeler that blamed California for the standstill.

It also accused the state’s negotiator, California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols, of incorrectly saying the Office of Transportation and Air Quality were shut out of the rulemaking process.

"Her testimony that EPA professional staff were cut out of this proposal's development is false," Wheeler wrote.

Alson said the administration has denied pushing aside career staff before, but he found this instance particularly grievous.

“To see it in a formal letter that was given to Congress and to specifically accuse someone else of lying when in reality that person was being truthful and when Administrator Wheeler was the one doing the lying, it just put me beyond the point of no return,” he said.

The EPA said Wheeler's letter speaks for itself.

"Career, professional staff within the Office of Air and Radiation were involved in the development of the proposal and continue to be involved in the final stages as we work with NHTSA to finalize this rule," a spokesperson said in an email to The Hill. 

A key pillar of former President Obama's environmental legacy involved strengthening fuel emissions standards for cars to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2026. But Trump's rollback would freeze the average fuel economy at 37 mpg.

Alson said his office did have two or three “check the box” meetings with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the other agency involved in drafting the rollback, but he said the agency did not collaborate with his EPA office in developing the standards and would not share any of their information with the EPA.

“NHTSA would say nothing about what they were assuming. They wouldn’t give us a copy of their models, they wouldn’t share their assumptions, they wouldn’t share their projections of how much the standards were going to cost,” he said. “They wouldn’t give us anything.”

When Bill Wehrum, EPA’s head of the Office of Air and Radiation, appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday, several Democrats questioned him about the role of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality.

Rep. Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoOvernight Energy: EPA expands use of pesticide it considers 'highly toxic' to bees | House passes defense bill with measure targeting 'forever chemicals' | Five things to watch as Barry barrels through the Gulf House passes bill to crack down on toxic 'forever chemicals' Scientific integrity is crumbling under Trump MORE (D-N.Y.) pointed a Government Accountability Office report that said, “NHTSA cannot be expected to have the same level of in-house expertise related to vehicle power train design and environmental issues as EPA.”

When Tonko pressed Wehrum on the Office of Air and Radiation’s involvement, Wehrum said their work with NHTSA was a “very powerful combination.”

“EPA has had a substantial amount of involvement,” Wehrum said.

Alson said retirement has freed him to talk in ways his colleagues who still work at the EPA cannot. He has been vocal in his opposition to the rollbacks, including penning an op-ed in The Hill, but said he has held back from addressing inaccuracies from administrator's until now.  

“The truth is Mary Nichols is telling the truth and Administrator Wheeler is lying, and it’s shameful and it breaks my heart that the man that heads up the agency where I worked for 40 years and spent my life trying to make the world a little bit better can blatantly lie to the American public.”