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By Abby Smith
President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the EPA’s air office would bring a deep knowledge of the agency, which former Bush-era officials say could help advance the administration’s efforts to rewrite Obama-era regulations.
If Bill Wehrum is confirmed by the Senate to lead the Environmental Protection Agency Office of Air and Radiation, he would return to a post he held in an acting capacity for two years during the Bush administration.
Former officials who worked with Wehrum in the Bush EPA said his experience will benefit Administrator Scott Pruitt’s team, which is largely lacking knowledge of the agency’s inner workings. Environmentalists, however, said they are discouraged by the choice and are likely to pressure Democrats to oppose the nomination.
President Donald Trump nominated Wehrum late Sept. 7 to be assistant administrator of the air office. Wehrum is currently an attorney in the Washington offices of Hunton & Williams LLP, where he heads the firm’s administrative law group.
Former Bush-era officials told Bloomberg BNA that Wehrum’s knowledge of the Clean Air Act will help to drive effective revisions to existing regulations and help smooth relations with career staff.
“I think this would be enormously helpful for the agency, both for the administrator and for the career staff,” Jeff Holmstead—who served as air chief in the Bush EPA—said. Wehrum served as Holmstead’s counsel and then deputy before taking over as acting air chief after Holmstead’s departure in 2005.
“Bill shares the [Trump] administration’s desire for regulatory reform, but he will also do it in a way that is fully consistent with the statute,” he said, adding Wehrum has a “wealth of experience” that no one else on the Pruitt team has.
Brent Fewell, founder of the Earth & Water Group who served as the EPA’s water chief from 2004 to 2007, said Wehrum is well respected by career staff. “This has been a difficult administration for” career EPA employees, he told Bloomberg BNA, noting Pruitt and much of his team are “outsiders.”
“Bill and Susan [Bodine] are insiders. The agency knows them and respects them, and this is the best way for the administration to get some work done,” he said. Bodine is Trump’s nominee to lead EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.
And Rich Alonso, an attorney with Sidley Austin LLP who served in the EPA’s enforcement office for nearly 10 years, added that Wehrum’s knowledge of the EPA “will also translate and help other political management to understand their parts of the agency.”
As air chief, Wehrum would lead the EPA’s work on air and climate regulation—meaning he would be directing Trump administration efforts to review, and potentially unravel, Obama-era rules. The EPA under Pruitt has committed to review several key Obama-era rules, including the Clean Power Plan, methane limits for the oil and gas industry, and more stringent ozone air pollution standards set in 2015.
Former Bush-era officials said having Wehrum at the head of that process will ensure “thoughtful” regulatory revisions. But environmentalists warned that Wehrum’s nomination would simply repeat history—particularly in the area of climate regulation, which they said the Bush administration slow-walked even after the Supreme Court’s landmark 2007 decision in Massachusetts vs. EPA. In that case, the high court ruled the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act as an air pollutant.
Vera Pardee, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, told Bloomberg BNA that Wehrum is a “horrendous” choice. And while it’s “undeniable” that he has “knowledge of the law and how the agency is supposed to work,” she said, Bush officials like Wehrum did their “very best...to prevent EPA from finding any evidence of climate change.”
Robert Routh, an attorney with the Clean Air Council, told Bloomberg BNA in an email that Wehrum’s nomination “fits a pattern...[a] turn to an old alum from the George W. Bush administration who does the bidding of the industries that he would oversee.”
Environmental groups are not likely to be quiet during Wehrum’s confirmation process. Fewell, who served as the EPA’s legislative director from 2007-2008 when Wehrum was nominated in the Bush era, said Democrats and their environmental allies prevented him from being confirmed the first time even though he is well qualified.
Holmstead said that, while some EPA career staffers may be “happy to get the news that Bill is going back,” that “doesn’t make the confirmation process any easier.” He said there could be several Democrats who ultimately decide Wehrum is “the kind of person we would want to have at the EPA.”
Fewell also suggested that Republican nominees like Wehrum—who Democrats viewed negatively 10 years ago—"quite frankly are more moderate” than some of the Trump administration’s other picks.
But Pardee said it is necessary to “call a spade a spade,” adding that ultimately the “public will not stand” for industry-friendly officials like Pruitt and Wehrum.
“Elections will come and there will be a reckoning,” she said. “But until then, the courts will understand what is happening, and we will fight against the rollbacks.”
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