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Wheeler seeks to paint EPA regulatory rollbacks as environmentally friendly

Wheeler seeks to paint EPA regulatory rollbacks as environmentally friendly
© Bonnie Cash

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerEnforcing environmental laws is a key to environmental justice EPA reapproves use of pesticide previously struck down in court OVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA eases permitting for modifications to polluting facilities | Rocky Mountain National Park closed due to expanding Colorado wildfire | Trump order strips workplace protections from civil servants MORE on Monday sought to portray some of the agency’s most significant regulatory rollbacks as environmentally friendly.

During a speech at the right-wing think tank American Enterprise Institute, the country’s top environmental official touted rules governing regulation from power plants, vehicle emissions and methane emissions as actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

He also praised the agency’s move to regulate aviation emissions. 

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“Just at EPA, the Trump administration in its first term has taken four concrete actions to reduce greenhouse gases,” Wheeler said.  

However, some of the rules are expected to provide significantly fewer emissions reductions than the Obama-era rules they replaced. 

One rule Wheeler highlighted was the SAFE vehicles rule, which requires automakers to produce vehicles whose fuel economies average 40 mpg by 2026 instead of the Obama administration’s 55 mpg by 2025.

The change is expected to result in an additional 867 million metric tons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere through 2029.

Another rule touted by Wheeler is the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which replaced the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. The new rule gives states more time and authority to decide how to implement the best new technology to ease emissions from coal plants and does not set emissions caps. 

Wheeler said Monday that the rule would reduce carbon emissions from 34 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, while the Obama administration said its rule would reduce emissions 32 percent. 

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However, the agency’s analysis of the rule said that, compared to no regulation, it would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 11 million tons by 2030, while the agency estimated that the Clean Power Plan would reduce emissions by 415 million tons.

The Supreme Court issued a decision in 2016 that temporarily halted the Obama rule's implementation.

Wheeler on Monday also touted rules “making it easier and less expensive for natural gas companies to capture fugitive methane emissions,” referring to emissions that accidentally leak out. 

A new agency rule reduces the frequency of monitoring for fugitive emissions from facilities that help process and transport natural gas by half and exempts small wells from monitoring for this. 

His comments come as a Rhodium Group analysis estimated that actions taken by the Trump administration could cause the release of an extra 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. 

However, Wheeler also toed the line between characterizing his actions as good for the environment and criticizing the prior administration as too focused on climate change. 

He criticized what he described as the Obama administration’s “overweening focus on climate change took the form of virtue-signaling in foreign capitals.”

During the appearance, he also sought to downplay the role of climate change on wildfires currently ravaging the West Coast. 

“I believe that the forest fires in the west are mostly caused by poor forest management and not climate change,” Wheeler said. 

Scientists have expressed concern that climate change contributes to heat and dryness that allow fires to spread more rapidly. 

Many forests in these states are managed by the federal government rather than the states.

In a call hosted by the Biden campaign on Monday, former EPA administrators including Republicans, criticized Wheeler's speech. 

"All I can say is if he would just substitute 'delete, destroy' for the word 'improve' he'd be right on," said Christine Todd-Whitman, a former New Jersey governor who also served as EPA administrator under the George W. Bush administration."This administration has done more to roll back protections for human health and the environment than any I can think of."

"Honestly this reminds me of President TrumpDonald John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline MORE's claiming to have done more for African Americans than Abraham Lincoln," said former administrator Bill Reilly, who served under George H.W. Bush. "You go through these specific rules that have been proposed by the administration and an invariable characteristic of the defense of those rules is their reduction in cost."

-- Rebecca Beitsch contributed.