U.S. EPA’s top air regulator is quietly shaping up to be one of the most influential players on President Trump’s environmental team.
Bill Wehrum, a longtime industry lawyer and Clean Air Act guru, is back for his second stint as the head of EPA’s air office after his nomination sputtered during the George W. Bush administration. He’s a low-key, shrewd lawyer with an ambitious agenda that sounds familiar to his fans and foes alike. And from his current perch, he’s poised to overhaul climate and air pollution rules in ways that could impact environmental policies for decades to come, or even longer.
Wehrum hasn’t even been on the job four months yet — he was confirmed in November. But he’s already leaving his mark on some of the most contentious issues in the environmental arena — like the rewrite of the Obama administration’s signature climate rule, emission limits for automobiles and national smog standards.
In an interview last week with E&E News, Wehrum listed six priorities for the air office that he plans to tackle over the next year: the Clean Power Plan; mercury and air toxic standards; national air pollution limits for ozone; permitting under EPA’s New Source Review program; EPA’s methane rule for oil and gas operations; and greenhouse gas standards for cars and trucks.
"They’re consequential, very important parts of the air program," Wehrum said.
The EPA veteran said he’s not intending to make serious shake-ups within the air office. "Coming here is not with the eye that I need to fundamentally change [the Office of Air and Radiation] or how OAR does what it does." The office "operates really well," he said, calling it a pleasure to work there.
And he said he’s working in tandem with his boss, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
"The administrator obviously runs the agency and has a very clear perspective on all of the important issues that we deal with. It’s important that we remain aligned," Wehrum said. "Part of the importance of my role is helping the agency thoroughly vet these issues and reach a position that makes sense."
Wehrum and Pruitt are relying on each other, said Jeff Holmstead, an industry attorney at Bracewell LLP who worked closely with Wehrum at the Bush EPA. Wehrum was counsel to Holmstead in the air shop when Holmstead led that office.
"Administrator Pruitt needs Bill Wehrum to get legally defensible regulatory reforms through the rulemaking process, and Wehrum needs support from the administrator to get the job done," Holmstead said.
Wehrum’s critics are wary about the lasting impact he’ll have.
"The Clean Air Act and EPA’s air office have been the most important, active elements of EPA for the better part of two decades," said John Walke, clean air director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
As for Wehrum’s priority list for the year, Walke said, "they’re all active or planned rollbacks. … There’s not an item on that list that is intended to improve air quality or the regulations responsible for reducing air pollution. It’s a 100 percent rollback agenda."
Wehrum, like Pruitt and the president, has been highly critical of the Obama administration’s biggest environmental rules. In some cases, the policies of Obama’s EPA were revisions of rules Wehrum’s office worked on during the Bush administration. He fought Obama-era environmental rules from private practice as an attorney at the Washington, D.C., law firm Hunton & Williams LLP, and now he’s getting a second chance to reset policy from within EPA.
"I’ve been fortunate over the years to work on some of the biggest and most important things that are done through the air office and the Clean Air Act," both at EPA and in private practice, Wehrum said. "It should be no surprise that my personal interests align with the things that are most important to this office."
He has said he’s eyeing small-scale changes, rather than sweeping reforms. "I think about it on an issue-by-issue basis," he said of air policies.
"We’re going to try to hit a few singles, maybe a couple of doubles, but we’re not going to swing for the fences every single time here," Wehrum told Bloomberg shortly after his November confirmation. "If we do enough of these more targeted things, then I think over time we will have a big impact on the program."
The political landscape appears more favorable for Wehrum this time around than it was when he worked for the Bush administration.
He’s already been confirmed by the Republican-led Senate, something that eluded him when he was nominated for the job in 2006. He was blocked by Senate Democrats and ultimately stepped down in 2007. And the administration’s efforts on air and climate rules aren’t likely to see the same pushback in a GOP-led Congress that both the Bush and Obama administrations experienced when one or both chambers were controlled by the opposing party.
Wehrum "now has another opportunity with an extremely supportive administration and a supportive Congress — at least for now — to try to get some of these things through," a former Obama EPA official said of Wehrum’s priorities.
Holmstead said of his former colleague, "I do think there are some things that he wanted to do the first time around that he was not able to do."
One of Wehrum’s priorities that’s already gotten a lot of attention is his push to reform the Clean Air Act’s New Source Review permitting program. It requires industries to get preconstruction permits before building a new plant or embarking on a major modification of an existing facility.
Even before Wehrum took office, the Trump EPA identified overhauling the NSR program in an October report as one of its key plans for reducing "unnecessary burdens on the development and use of domestic energy resources." Under the Bush administration, Wehrum and Holmstead attempted large-scale changes to that program but were blocked by the courts.
And Wehrum recently infuriated environmentalists by scrapping an air pollution policy that dated back to the Clinton administration. The policy known as "once in, always in" applied to factories and other "major" industrial pollution sources subject to maximum achievable control technology standards because they annually release more than 10 tons of a single air toxic or 25 tons of any combination of hazardous pollutants.
Wehrum revoked the policy last month, saying in a memo that the policy wasn’t authorized by the Clean Air Act and that revoking it would reduce the regulatory burden for industries and states. The Bush EPA proposed rescinding the 1995 directive but was blocked by Congress (Greenwire, Jan. 26).
Another area where Wehrum will leave his mark: climate policy.
He’s playing a central part in the repeal and replacement of the Clean Power Plan, a rule that aims to cut power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions. He and his colleagues in the Trump administration are eyeing a drastically scaled-back version of that rule that "looks a lot more traditional," Wehrum said last week. He noted that EPA has a range of options available — the agency is currently asking the public for comments about how to replace the standard, if at all.
Wehrum is also involved in the decision over whether EPA will lower Obama-era fuel economy standards for vehicle model years 2021 to 2025 — an issue that has raised tensions with California officials. The state has a Clean Air Act waiver allowing it to set stricter auto emission standards than the federal government. California’s current waiver lets it mandate that 15 percent of new cars by 2025 have zero emissions, but major changes would require a new waiver — and California officials have expressed concern that their current or future waivers could be under threat.
Wehrum has a history with the California waiver. In 2006, he urged then-EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson to deny California’s waiver. Johnson followed Wehrum’s advice, denying the waiver in December 2007 (Climatewire, Jan. 26).
Wehrum said last week that he’s had a "very productive" dialogue with California regulators. With automakers concerned about having to make separate cars to meet differing rules in various parts of the country, Wehrum said, "We have an interest in maintaining one national program, and I’m trying very hard to accomplish that outcome."
When he was in private practice, Wehrum said he didn’t think EPA should be regulating carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act at all.
He said in a 2013 interview with Law360 that "Congress never intended the EPA to address an issue such as climate change under the Clean Air Act." He added, "The act clearly is designed to deal with very different kinds of pollution and very different kinds of health and environmental effects" (Climatewire, Sept. 8, 2017).