EPA’s air pollution chief steps down after ethics probe raises new questions
The former utility lawyer who led much of President Donald Trump’s rollback of pollution regulations will leave the Environmental Protection Agency — a move that comes after he provided conflicting information to Congress about his connections to the industry, three sources knowledgeable about the matter told POLITICO.
EPA air pollution chief Bill Wehrum’s ties to his old law firm and especially the Utility Air Regulatory Group, an influential collection of coal-heavy utilities that lobbied against climate regulations, drew scrutiny from House Democrats, who launched an investigation in April. POLITICO reported in February that 25 power companies and six industry trade groups agreed to pay the firm a total of $8.2 million in 2017, the same year President Donald Trump tapped Wehrum to join the EPA.
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Wehrum has said he represented only the group, not its member utilities, some of which he had met with in his role at EPA. But people with knowledge of the case said actions taken by his old law firm, Hunton Andrews Kurth, have led congressional investigators to believe that the utilities were also clients, in which case Wehrum may have violated his ethics agreement.
“They think they caught him in a lie,” said an energy industry source close to the committee. “[The UARG investigation] was always about getting Wehrum.”
Another person in the energy industry said Wednesday that Wehrum has “accomplished a majority of his goals” at EPA but simply had enough of the flak.
“The rigmarole is just not fun for him, constantly being personally attacked in a very unfair way,” said the person, who requested anonymity to protect relations with the agency.
“Bill Wehrum is not Scott Pruitt,” the industry ally added, referring to the former EPA administrator who hung onto his job during months of endless scandals.
Environmentalists quickly cheered Wehrum’s departure.
“Wehrum did more damage to the Clean Air Act than any other person in the last 40 years,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “His legacy will be more premature deaths, more hospital visits and more asthma attacks to our most vulnerable citizens.”
Since arriving at EPA in November 2017, Wehrum has proven to be a prolific, nimble deregulator. As assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, he oversaw the agency’s major rollbacks of environmental and climate rules, including last week’s rollout of a blockbuster regulation on coal power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions that is significantly more restrained than what the Obama administration had enacted.
“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,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a statement. Efforts to reach Wehrum were not succesful.
But Wehrum’s departure has thrown the timeline for many of those complicated, high-profile rulemakings in doubt, including a forthcoming package rolling back auto pollution standards and separate rules on other types of pollution from power plants, oil and gas producers and other industries.
Anne Idsal, Wehrum’s principal deputy, will take over the air office in an acting capacity. She previously was the regional administrator for EPA’s south central region, including Texas and surrounding states.
John Coequyt, the Sierra Club’s global climate policy director, said Wehrum’s exit was “a blow to the revolving door” in which lobbyists go back and forth in working for agency the industries they regulate.
“One of the biggest funders of anti-environmental advocacy at the agency has pretty much gone away, and it’s going to be much harder for those utilities to engage the agency in the way that they did in the past, without a lot of repercussions,” he said.
Scrutiny from House Energy and Commerce Committee led to UARG’s decision in May to dissolve, but the committee continued to probe whether Wehrum had violated his ethics agreement which said he would recuse himself from matters relating to former clients.
Wehrum told POLITICO in February that he represented UARG as a “legal entity,” but not its member companies. That distinction would have permitted Wehrum to meet with those individual utilities even if they were part of UARG, which he could not meet with under the terms of his ethics agreement.
Wehrum and his former firm Hunton’s responses to questions indicated a disagreement about whether the law firm represented UARG’s individual member companies, according to a former EPA official, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
Hunton claimed attorney-client privilege for its communication with UARG and the utilities, the person said. Exercising that privilege to the committee would indicate a relationship between the law firm and standalone companies.
If those energy companies do have a client relationship with Hunton, that would mean Wehrum could have violated his ethics agreement when he met with UARG companies on matters from which he was not already recused.
A source at the Energy and Commerce Committee confirmed that it believed Wehrum’s clients included the utilities companies.
“While our investigation is ongoing we have learned that UARG’s structure is such that Hunton represented both UARG and each individual company,” an Energy and Commerce staffer told POLITICO.
“UARG was a client,” Wehrum said in response to questioning from chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) earlier this month, adding it’s “not my understanding” that included UARG’s individual member companies.
Coincidentally, Wehrum’s departure in certain ways mirrors his 2007 resignation from the agency. After serving almost two years as the acting air administrator under the Bush administration, Wehrum left the agency when it became clear Senate Democrats would block his nomination. That departure came shortly after he proposed a rule that would have ended a permitting policy known in EPA lingo as “once in, always in” that determine which pollution rules apply to a facility.
That proposal was never finished. But just months after Wehrum rejoined EPA, he took another crack at it via a memo informally reversing the “once in, always in” policy. Wehrum followed that up with a formal proposal that was released on Wednesday — just days before he once again will resign from EPA.
Eric Wolff contributed to this report.