Overnight Energy & Environment

Overnight Energy: Top EPA official stepping down amid ethics probe | Critics slam EPA for rolling back union protections | Trump officials open door to controversial Alaska mining project

GREENS NEVER LIKED HIM. NOW WEHRUM WON’T HAVE TO HEAR ‘EM: The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) air policy chief is leaving amid ethics concerns.

The agency on Wednesday announced that Bill Wehrum, the head of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, will leave by the end of June. 

The announcement comes a few months after lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee launched an investigation into whether Wehrum and his deputy improperly aided former energy industry clients after joining the EPA.

Wehrum, along with the office’s senior counsel, David Harlow, formerly worked at the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth, where he represented Utility Air Regulatory Group. The group represents a number of power plant operators that EPA regulates.{mosads}

The lawmakers wrote an April later to Wehrum’s former employer saying they were “deeply troubled by several reports of unethical behavior by EPA officials, particularly in the Office of Air and Radiation.”

“We are concerned that two former employees of your firm — William Wehrum and David Harlow — may have violated federal ethics rules by helping reverse EPA’s position in ongoing litigation,” Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) wrote in a letter to Hunton that was also signed by Reps. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.).

Wehrum’s impact: The agency under President Trump has rolled back a number of regulations that had long been targets of the coal industry and coal-reliant utilities.

Wehrum specifically was an integral player in relaxing a number of Obama-era pollution rules, including Tuesday’s finalized repeal of the “once in, always in” regulation for sources of air pollution at “major” industrial power plants.

Wehrum has led the EPA’s efforts to repeal and replace the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, rolling out a final rule earlier this month to ease restrictions on coal fired power plants, called the American Clean Energy (ACE) rule. That rule is likely to face a court battle.

The head of EPA’s air pollution department has also played a role in shaping the new federal vehicle emissions standards, which critics argue will allow more pollution from tailpipe emissions.

Wheeler praises Wehrum: In a statement Wednesday, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler suggested that Wehrum had been anticipating leaving the EPA after the finalization of the rules.

“I would like to thank Assistant Administrator Bill Wehrum for his service, his dedication to his job, the leadership he provided to his staff and the agency, and for his friendship,” Wheeler wrote. “While I have known of Bill’s desire to leave at the end of this month for quite sometime, the date has still come too soon. I applaud Bill and his team for finalizing the Affordable Clean Energy regulation last week and for the tremendous progress he has made in so many other regulatory initiatives.”

Wheeler said Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator Anne Idsal will take over Wehrum’s role.

Environmental groups cheered Wehrum’s departure Wednesday, saying he did more harm than good at the EPA.

Read more on Wehrum’s legacy here


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CRITICS SAY EPA SCALED BACK UNION PROTECTIONS: Critics are pushing back after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced this week that it is rolling back the union protections offered to its employees.

In an email sent to agency staff earlier this week and obtained by The Hill late Tuesday, the agency announced it will implement a new contract that remains unsigned by the union itself.

“It’s styled as a collective bargaining agreement, but there’s no agreement. It’s imposed as an order, a dictate,” said Jeff Ruch, pacific director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), adding that the contract would dramatically reduce the assistance the union can offer EPA employees.

The details: Under the contract, union employees would have to give up office space within the EPA offices and union leaders would not be able to use the intranet or agency billboards to communicate with members. It would also limit the amount of time union leaders could spend helping rank-and-file employees with labor disputes and other issues by 75 percent.

PEER leaders said numerous EPA employees had reached out to them with concerns following the move.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) has already filed an unfair labor practice charge against the EPA to stop the seven-year contract from taking effect July 9. 

A long fight: EPA and the AFGE, the largest union representing EPA employees, have struggled for years to negotiate a new contract for employees. 

EPA officials said they put the contract in place after the union walked away from negotiations that had been dragging on since 2010. The two sides have long disagreed over how much of the union contract is up for review. 

“As a practical matter, if EPA decided to lay off one-third of its employees as the Trump administration has been proposing for [the] last couple of years, the union ability to block that or even intercede is severely weakened,” Ruch said. 

EPA officials claim the new contract was designed for efficiency and effectiveness.

A career EPA employee said “there are certain limitations within the arbitration provision” that apply to employees who are being disciplined or fired.

But the agency argued that disputes were being handled in too many ways.

“If you already have other avenues of redress, then giving people multiple avenues for redress doesn’t make sense, especially when you have employees file in more than one place — it’s ineffective at a certain point,” the agency said. 

PEER called the move “mean-spirited and petty.”

Read more about the contract and controversy here


EPA FLIPS ON PEBBLE MINE: The Trump administration is again opening the door to the controversial Pebble Mine project in Alaska.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday that it will restart consideration of the mining project, which was previously promised by former EPA head Scott Pruitt but paused.

“Today’s step is a move toward good government decision making, which we owe under the law to both the public and project proponents,” EPA General Counsel Matthew Leopold said in a statement. 

The memo, signed by Leopold, means the Trump administration is looking into pulling the 2014 Obama administration proposal to block Pebble Mine. The EPA at the time said it would be too harmful to streams that flow into Bristol Bay, which hosts the largest Salmon fishery in the world, among other ecologically important features.

In January 2018, Pruitt made a surprising announcement that the EPA would not pursue its plans to do away with the Obama-era proposal to restrict the mining located nearly 200 miles from Anchorage. Pruitt had previously moved in May 2018 to withdraw the Obama administration’s proposal to block the mine under the Clean Water Act.

Instead in a statement, Pruitt warned mining in the region would “likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources that exist there.”

Read more about the project here



The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on storing nuclear waste.



New York City officials declare climate emergency, we report

Researchers ‘disappointed’ after 2 more right whales found dead in Canadian waters, the CBC reports. 

Oregon climate bill dead, top Senate Democrats say, according to The Oregonian

Methane rules up for debate as drilling booms in New Mexico, the Associated Press reports. 

In Florida, your vegetable garden is now safe from local governments, the Orlando Sentinel reports.



Stories from Wednesday…

Critics slam EPA for rolling back union protections with latest contract

New York City officials declare climate emergency

Trump administration to reconsider allowing controversial Alaska mining project

Top EPA official stepping down amid ethics probe

Tags American Federation of Government Employees Andrew Wheeler Bill Wehrum Diana DeGette Donald Trump Environmental Protection Agency EPA Frank Pallone Jr. Paul Tonko Pebble Mine PEER Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Scott Pruitt

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