The Trump administration could name a California farming representative to fill U.S. EPA’s last vacant regional administrator post.
As the administration cycles through potential nominees to head EPA’s westernmost regional office, attention is being paid to California agricultural industry officials with experience navigating the state’s persistent air pollution issues. One of the current leading contenders, sources say, is Roger Isom, president of the agricultural trade groups the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association and the Western Agricultural Processors Association.
U.S. EPA’s Region 9 office has been without a permanent administrator for more than a year, the longest vacancy of any of the 10 regional offices throughout the country. EPA’s San Francisco shop employs about 700 staffers with jurisdiction over Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, the Pacific islands and nearly 150 Native American tribes.
Isom said he hasn’t been officially asked to serve, but is intrigued by the possibility.
"It obviously would be a pretty interesting challenge," he said. "I think there are a lot of things that could be done in Region 9."
Perhaps the biggest challenge the region faces is to get its air pollution under control. California’s Central Valley, a largely rural and agricultural region spanning some 25,000 square miles, is one of only two parts of the country rated as in "extreme nonattainment" for EPA’s 2008 ozone standard of 75 parts per billion (Greenwire, March 15). It is also out of compliance with federal standards for fine particulate matter.
"Out here, what the challenge is with the extreme nonattainment areas that we have, that’s some pretty daunting tasks to try to achieve out here," Isom said. "Finding ways to do that and thread the needle, if you will, would be extremely tough, but would be worth investigating."
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has a tough line to walk when it comes to filling the Region 9 spot in San Francisco, perhaps the city with the strongest antipathy to the Trump administration. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has expressed a strong preference that the administrator should come from California, sources said. That ruled out Arizona Department of Environmental Quality Director Misael Cabrera, they said, who along with other Arizonans had pushed for the Region 9 headquarters to be relocated to Phoenix (Climatewire, Oct. 19, 2017). Other reported candidates from outside California also withdrew, including New Mexico Oil and Gas Association Executive Director Ryan Flynn and Gulf Oil LP executive Chris Paul (Climatewire, Jan. 26).
McCarthy’s position also means candidates will be conversant with California’s environmental regulations, which in many cases go further than the federal government’s. The state’s persistent air pollution is the reason it has the authority to set stricter-than-federal air rules under the Clean Air Act, but it must ask EPA for permission each time it wants to enact a new, stricter regulation, which has led to clashes with Pruitt.
The state Air Resources Board is currently in negotiations with EPA and the Department of Transportation over the fate of Obama-era fuel economy standards, which California wrote alongside federal officials. The state also oversees a unique suite of greenhouse gas regulations, including an economywide cap-and-trade system, aimed at reducing emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.
Isom, an electrical engineer by training, has experience as an environmental regulator. He worked at the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District in the 1990s in the permitting and emissions inventory divisions. In his current industry posts, he also works on air pollution permitting and other environmental matters, as well as issues related to pesticides, energy, safety, labor and transportation.
"Some might think I’m a good candidate; I can tell you there’s others that probably don’t," he said. McCarthy’s office and the White House did not respond to requests for comment about Isom.
He said EPA needs a permanent regional administrator soon so it can help state officials with an upcoming state implementation plan for the San Joaquin Valley’s fine particulate matter targets, among other issues.
"It’s essentially a ghost town right now because nobody’s going to say anything or do anything," he said of the agency. "I think even some staff over there are growing concerned about the lack of a leader for so long. That’s not good. Obviously we don’t always agree, but you’ve got to have someone over there working on this process, because ultimately it’s got to go through EPA."
Isom is also familiar with the state’s climate policies. He supported state lawmakers’ extension of cap and trade last year because it was less expensive than alternative proposals and because the agricultural industry received more than $100 million in auction proceeds to replace high-emitting equipment. He said he took a pragmatic view toward engaging in the negotiations.
"You look at the makeup of the Legislature, you look at the population and where that is in California, it’s challenging at best," he said. "It’s not whether you believe in climate change or not; it’s purely how do we stay in business and accommodate regulations when China and our competitors aren’t doing any."
Last month, Isom retweeted an article on a federal study showing that 2017 was the second- or third-warmest year since 1880, but added, "How about the other 4.5 billion years the earth has been around?"
Another California agricultural candidate the Trump administration turned to early in the process was Manuel Cunha Jr., the president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League. Cunha said he turned down the offer in February 2017 because he wanted to focus on immigration policy — an area where California’s GOP contingent differs sharply from the national party line due to the agricultural industry’s reliance on immigrant farmworkers.
Cunha confirmed that the administration has been vetting Central Valley candidates. "I do know that they’ve been looking at people out of the San Joaquin Valley," he said. "We can’t move it to Phoenix."
Cunha praised past Region 9 administrators Jared Blumenfeld and Felicia Marcus, both of whom previously worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Jared was very helpful with agriculture on our tractor program, and so was Felicia Marcus with the conservation management practice," he said, referring to two local air district programs to limit air pollution. "Those two folks did believe in Roger and I and the district and supported us."
Seyed Sadredin, the head of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, has also been floated as a potential nominee, but he declined to be considered, sources said. Cunha said there is at least one other candidate under discussion.
"There’s two qualified people," Cunha said. "Take one of them and put it in; that’s all it takes. We need guidance, we need leadership in Region 9. I don’t want California ARB to be the only agency in charge."