EPA chief espouses benefits of agency's environmental deregulation

EPA chief espouses benefits of agency's environmental deregulation
© Stefani Reynolds

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerCalifornia officials boycott LA auto show in warning to industry: 'It's not business as usual' More than 200 lawmakers urge EPA to negotiate new union contract Is Big Oil feeling the heat? MORE took to the microphone Tuesday to espouse the benefits of deregulation.

Wheeler, speaking to the Detroit Economic Club, said he is often asked how the agency can protect the environment by rolling back regulations.

“This question assumes that regulation is the only path to environmental protection,” Wheeler said. “Innovation and technology have lead to remarkable environmental progress and often deregulation is necessary to spur on that innovation. Furthermore, deregulation does not always mean rolling back rules. More often than not it means modernizing or simplifying or streamlining regulations.”

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The official touted EPA stats, showing the agency has taken 46 deregulatory actions under the Trump administration with another 45 in the pipeline. The actions that have been finalized have saved $3.7 billion in regulatory costs, he said. 

Wheeler also said the EPA was also one of the best at complying with one of President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE’s earliest executive orders requiring agencies to get rid of two regulations for every new one they finalized, cutting 26 regulations while creating four new ones. 

But the agency’s approach has been heavily criticized by former EPA employees and administrators, including Republicans, who said that under the Trump administration the agency has abandoned its mission while systematically undermining protections.  

“The deregulation which Wheeler brags about removes completely or weakens the clean air, water or land standards so there is no incentive for industry to change their existing technologies no matter how polluting they are,” said Betsy Southerland, who was director of the Office of Science and Technology at the EPA’s Office of Water under the Obama administration.

“Wheeler also continues to cite the cost savings of removing or weakening standards but never mentions the enormous benefits lost.”

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The EPA’s own inspector general said the agency has “exceeded the deregulatory goals” of Trump’s “two-for-one” executive order, and it estimated the regulatory savings were nearly $100 million for 2017 and 2018. 

Wheeler used the session to defend a number of EPA decisions taken since he was confirmed in February, including revoking a California waiver that allows them to set more stringent tailpipe emissions standards —“Federalism does not mean that one state can dictate standards for the entire country,” — to a proposal to roll back Obama-era mileage standards for cars.

“As prices fall more Americans will be able to purchase newer, cleaner, safer vehicles -- vehicles that they want to buy,” he said, saying scrapping regulations help provide certainty for companies.

But Bob Perciasepe, the deputy administrator at the EPA from 2009 to 2014, said automakers’ opposition to the rule shows that industries sometimes favor regulations and that they can help provide certainty needed to spur innovation. 

Perciasepe said innovation might be driven by a company’s altruism or a desire to find efficiency, but the government’s role is to help make sure that technology is deployed, not just at one company, but also by their competitors if it helps decrease pollution. 

“Something has to drive the deployment and something has to incentivize why someone is innovating in the first place,” he said. “It’s not binary where you innovate and then don’t need regulations or you regulate and then don’t have innovation.”

Wheeler also criticized the media for failing to highly the agency’s achievements more frequently. 

“My frustration with some of the media is they don’t tell this side of the story. If you had similar reductions in opioid addiction or gang violence it would lead the nightly news,” he said. “We’ve made tremendous enviro progress as a nation and the public needs to know that.”

But some who keep a watchful eye on the EPA don’t see it that way.

“This truth hurts Andrew Wheeler plainly, so he bashes the news media for reporting the truth, accurately and fairly. The Trump EPA deserves zero credit for any improvements resulting from the prior administration's rules, especially when Trump rollbacks have increased air and water pollution,” said John Walke, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

“Every time he speaks it just proves his tenure is a rollback juggernaut, from the name of the speech to boasting about 26 rollbacks versus four new rules. He just can’t escape the fact that he wants to boast about that on the one hand and then bash the media for reporting it on the other hand. You can’t have it both ways.”