Industry group tied to EPA air chief dissolves
A secretive utility industry coalition formerly represented by a top official at the Environmental Protection Agency is dissolving amid investigations into whether its members received special treatment from the Trump administration.
The Utility Air Regulatory Group has been under scrutiny from the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which was seeking information on the relationship between power companies, EPA air chief Bill Wehrum and the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth, which represented the group.
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UARG has frequently argued against tighter air pollution and climate regulations; Wehrum is undoing many of the policies at EPA that the group targeted when he represented it at Hunton.
The group released a statement Friday saying its “membership has decided to disband the organization following a wind down period.” The statement said a committee would be formed to handle “the completion/fulfillment of UARG’s existing obligations and support of members as they continue to cooperate with the Congressional inquiry.”
In a separate statement, Hunton said it was “proud to have been part of” UARG’s efforts to shape federal air pollution rules through public comments and other participation in the regulatory process.
Wehrum represented UARG until 2017, when he was nominated by President Donald Trump to be EPA’s assistant administrator for air and radiation, a position that has allowed him to oversee many of his former clients’ top regulatory priorities.
Membership in UARG was first reported by POLITICO, which obtained internal organization documents showing Hunton billed power companies $8.2 million in dues for 2017. Several utilities had already fled the organization before it was terminated Friday.
The connections between Hunton, UARG, its member companies and UARG raised ethical concerns over whether a powerful regulator was able to steer business to former friends and colleagues.
Wehrum he has stayed in frequent contact with former colleagues at Hunton and other companies affiliated with the group. But he said he did not violate his ethics agreement, as he recused himself for dealing with “particular matters” related to UARG.
The House committee is investigating how power companies paid for UARG dues and whether the group’s members had undue influence over EPA policy. Consumer advocates allege utility customers often foot the bill, which some power companies have confirmed; American Electric Power told Inside EPA that ratepayers financed membership.
Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), as well as Reps. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), welcomed the group’s dissolution, but said it wouldn’t affect their investigation.
“Important questions remain about whether EPA officials William Wehrum and David Harlow continue to advance their former coal industry clients’ agenda at EPA, and we intend to see those questions through,” the three lawmakers said in a statement Friday evening.
UARG had existed since the 1970s but became aggressively litigious during the Obama administration.
One of its major achievements was a 2014 Supreme Court ruling, UARG v. EPA, in which Justice Antonin Scalia scolded EPA for seeking an “enormous and transformative expansion” of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases.
UARG challenged many other major EPA regulations from the Obama era, including carbon rules for existing and future coal plants, a mercury rule for coal plants, the updated ozone standard, haze cleanup plans and safety rules for industrial chemical facilities. Most of those lawsuits hadn’t been settled before the Trump administration took power. EPA is now revising or repealing most of those rules.
And UARG is helping defend EPA in at least six ongoing lawsuits, including over several changes to air permitting policies and the agency’s rejection of pollution complaints from downwind states.
It is unclear how UARG’s dissolution will affect those cases.
Alex Guillén contributed to this report.