As Congress enters the legislative homestretch, Andrew Wheeler, Republican staff director for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, weighs in on some of the major issues facing lawmakers this session and those likely to spill over into 2006. Wheeler says EPW panel lawmakers are still considering environmental waivers to speed up hurricane cleanup efforts along the Gulf Coast and are also working on changes to the Endangered Species Act. Plus, he explains EPW Committee Chairman James Inhofe's (R-Okla.) agenda on climate change and the path forward for clean air legislation.
Darren Samuelsohn: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Darren Samuelsohn. Joining us today in the E&ETV studios in Washington is Andrew Wheeler, Republican staff director for the Senate and Public Works Committee. Andrew thanks for coming back on the show.
Andrew Wheeler: Thank you Darren, nice to be back.
Darren Samuelsohn: The committee is pretty busy right now. You've got a lot of stuff on your agenda, hurricanes and energy I guess is probably one of the things that you're moving the most on right now.
Andrew Wheeler: Yes, it is.
Darren Samuelsohn: You've got a markup planned for next week in the committee ...
Andrew Wheeler: That is our intention at this point for the refining bill that Senator Inhofe introduced.
Darren Samuelsohn: Now let's talk about the bill in terms of what is it going to do? President Bush, when he signed the energy bill, the last energy bill into law, he said he can't wave a magic wand over gas prices. Clearly that's what people are wondering about right now. Will your bill, if it was to be enacted and signed into law, would it have any effect on gas prices right now?
Andrew Wheeler: I don't believe it would have an effect in the immediate term, but it would have an effect in the midrange to long term because the bill, the way it's designed, will help increase the capacity of existing refineries and help encourage the building of new refineries for the long term.
Darren Samuelsohn: And you've said it has nothing to do with rolling back environmental standards. Environmental groups are ...
Andrew Wheeler: Absolutely not.
Darren Samuelsohn: ... they're starting to kick up some dust and they're saying that lawsuits will be filed and that this could have some Clean Air Act implications.
Andrew Wheeler: That's true they are saying that, although they don't really point to anything specific in our legislation that they have problems with. Most of their complaints seem to be with the House bill and concerns about what may happen in conference. Our bill, the way it's designed, we have the severability clause to make sure that all the permits can continue. We also have the clause to make sure that it does not overturn any environmental statutes and that nothing is overwritten.
Darren Samuelsohn: You've raised the question about whether or not this will actually make it to the Senate floor here in the next couple of weeks before Thanksgiving recess. Do you have any assurances yet we've got some floor time for your bill once it moves out of committee?
Andrew Wheeler: At this point leadership, and rightfully so, are not giving any assurances on anything moving to the floor before the end of this session, aside from the appropriation bills and the Supreme Court nomination. We are hopeful and the best way to do that is to have something worked out with a minority and get a time agreement and bring something up on the floor. And that is certainly our intention. And everything we've done from when we were drafting the bill, sharing it with the minority, before we introduced it, to asking for their input both before and post introduction and through the hearing yesterday, is designed to get minority support on the bill so we can move something forward in a bipartisan fashion.
Darren Samuelsohn: Do you anticipate major changes in the bill before it gets marked up next week?
Andrew Wheeler: Well of course we like the bill as introduced, but we're certainly open to any changes. We've talked to a number of groups who are in the process of reviewing the bill and making some suggestions to tighten some of the language and to make sure that our intentions are what is actually in the bill. There is nothing nefarious in the bill. We aren't trying to sneak anything in. So if there are any legitimate concerns with the language we certainly want to address those and move forward with something that would be meaningful to increase refining capacity.
Darren Samuelsohn: Watching this process from outside of the capital it's a little bit confusing in terms of how Congress has reacted to the hurricanes and the storms and the energy crisis. In the House they moved a bill through a couple of weeks ago that passed very narrowly. And you've said most recently that you didn't think, you didn't know what the vote total would look like if that bill came up in the Senate. What is Chairman Barton over on the House side, what are his options right now if he really wants to get a bill through?
Andrew Wheeler: If he wants to get a bill through the Senate?
Darren Samuelsohn: If he wants to get a bill to President Bush's desk, yeah.
Andrew Wheeler: Oh, well to continue to work with the Senate, both the Republicans and the Democrats, to see where the concerns are. I think a lot of people had a knee jerk reaction to the Barton bill. There's a lot of good things in the bill. There's some provisions that we had some questions about, but I think it's, overall people should have an open mind when discussing it. But likewise the House also needs to listen to what the Senate's concerns are. I do want to point out though that we started working on our bill over a year ago, on the refining capacity. This is not something just in response to the hurricanes. These have been concerns of Seronov's for quite some time, to try to increase the domestic refining capacity.
Darren Samuelsohn: These bills don't line up though. The bill that passed the House ...
Andrew Wheeler: No, they don't line up exactly. With the jurisdictional differences in the Senate and House some of the provisions in the Barton bill would be in the energy committee in the Senate. Some provisions would be in the environment committee that Senator Inhofe chairs. And there are other provisions that, I understand that Senator Barton, Congressman Barton is looking at other energy hearings in the House and he may have other proposals coming down the pike. I'm not sure.
Darren Samuelsohn: And he's given us an indication at least that he's going to be looking into this issue some more.
Andrew Wheeler: Yes.
Darren Samuelsohn: Switching over to another hurricane related issue. After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Senator Inhofe introduced legislation that would propose to waive environmental rules for 120 days. And you've said this was specifically for the Gulf Coast region, to help basic cleanup.
Andrew Wheeler: Yes, that was specifically for the hurricane.
Darren Samuelsohn: Now a couple of weeks after, actually we're almost a month after the hurricane and we've had another hurricane hit and now we've got another one headed for Florida. The cleanup has started and EPA has testified that they right now don't think that they need the ability, or the additional ability. From your perspective are you finished with this? Is this a done deal and there's not going to be really any legislation moving on the environmental waiver issue?
Andrew Wheeler: Actually what they've said is that they're continuing to look at what additional authorities they may need. And we are still waiting to hear from them if they do need any additional authorities. We're not interested in just granting blanket authorities for anyone or everyone. We want to do something will help the cleanup effort. And to be honest, EPA effort would gradually become the lion's share of the work going on in Louisiana as we move more and more towards cleaning up and the reclamation of the area. The first part of the phase was of course with the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA for the disaster relief. But as we clean up the sites and clean up the residue that's left in the streets and on the houses, it gets more into EPA's jurisdiction. And the EPA, I believe, is still evaluating what they may or may not need.
Darren Samuelsohn: Are you -- I mean obviously the waste and the accumulation of debris in New Orleans has been documented. The stench, apparently, is horrible down there with refrigerators and spoiled rotten food. I mean is that what you're thinking about in terms of disposing of food and other toxic substances? I'm not calling food toxic substance, but you know ...
Andrew Wheeler: Yes. Well that would be part of it, but EPA has also with the air releases and the cleanup of the water, the cleanup of the water in Lake Pontchartrain and all the Superfund sites, I believe there are over 20 Superfund sites in the New Orleans area. There are a lot of issues that they're still getting a handle on, on what they need to do to cleanup and to stabilize the environment in the area.
Darren Samuelsohn: From what you've seen though, EPA has been able to act with at least about two dozen I think waiver requests that they've dealt with on the gasoline side of things across the country.
Andrew Wheeler: Yes.
Darren Samuelsohn: And then in the startup and shutdown of refineries that had to start back up, EPA has waived Clean Air Act compliance. So they do have authority ...
Andrew Wheeler: Yes they do.
Darren Samuelsohn: ... that they've documented and does that demonstrate to you that they maybe have enough cover? That they don't need legislative changes at this point?
Andrew Wheeler: What the question becomes is whether or not it is enough for the waivers. There are provisions in most environmental statutes for citizen lawsuits. There's provisions for monitoring reporting that, those businesses aren't up and running yet. We don't know what the implications will be for those aspects of the different environmental statutes. And what we want to make sure that happens is, is that the sites get cleaned up quickly, safely, to protect the environment for the people who live there. And that innocent land owners and residents don't get penalized for being out of their homes or businesses for months because of the hurricane relief.
Darren Samuelsohn: Let's switch over to climate change, which is another issue that Senator Inhofe has held a couple of hearings recently on.
Andrew Wheeler: Right. Which has no relation to all the hurricanes, but go ahead.
Darren Samuelsohn: We'll get at that in one second here now. You brought in Michael Crichton, a novelist, to testify about his book and what he wrote about it in "State of Fear" and the politicalization of science. And then a week later you had Harland Watson, the top U.S. climate negotiator, in. What's been the point of these hearings going forward for Senator Inhofe? What is he, where is he going with this issue?
Andrew Wheeler: Well again they are not specifically related to each other. The science hearing, when Senator Inhofe became chairman of the committee, almost 3 years ago, he laid out three goals for the committee. And one was to have decisions based on the best available science. The second is to take a look at the benefits and the costs of the environmental regulations within the jurisdiction of the committee. And the third is to try to have a change in the way that the bureaucracy deals with average citizens across the country. So on the science side, which was the purpose of the so-called Crichton hearing, which was to take a look at some of the issues involving science. And we looked at the hurricane issue. We also look to climate and also the use of DDT to try to alleviate malaria in Third World nations. Those are all three different issues having to do with science and the use of science and setting public policy. The hearing with Dr. Watson was a climate change hearing. It was to look at what the European Union and other countries are doing to implement the Kyoto treaty.
Darren Samuelsohn: Do you sense, I mean the sense of the Senate vote, let's bring that up, from this past summer where the Senate voted in favor of moving ahead at some point in the future they said that they would adopt some sort of controls on carbon dioxide. And it's not an actual vote to impose them, but it says that they're on the record in support of this idea. Has that shifted the dynamic, from your perspective, to have the Senate on record in favor of carbon dioxide controls at some point into the future?
Andrew Wheeler: No, not really. In fact, I think that the key vote this summer was the McCain-Lieberman vote, where they actually lost I believe five votes from the last time their proposal was up for a Senate vote. A sense of the Senate is just that. It's the sense of that Senate on that particular day. And there were people that I believe who voted for that because they wanted to vote for something, although there are no teeth in the sense of the Senate. And it was, I believe there was a provision to make sure that nothing impacted the economy or was detrimental to the U.S. economy. And you can't have mandatory carbon without being detrimental to the U.S. economy.
Darren Samuelsohn: You've mentioned Senator Inhofe. Three years now into his chairmanship, under Republican term limits he's got six years, so he's halfway through. What's been his biggest success and I guess his biggest disappointment so far?
Andrew Wheeler: Well you would need to ask Chairman Inhofe of course. From my perspective I would say that the highway bill is probably the biggest success. And I would say the biggest disappointment was the politicization of the issues around the Clear Skies legislation at the beginning of this year, which actually was the last time I was on this program.
Darren Samuelsohn: Yeah.
Andrew Wheeler: Where the other side demonized a 70 percent reduction in utility emissions. The largest reduction never called for by an American president. And they're holding it hostage to the carbon issue. I think that was a disappointment because we thought that people could come together to try to reduce pollution and not hold it out for a political issue.
Darren Samuelsohn: We spent the bulk of our time, the last time you were on the show, talking about Clear Skies. At that point it was, I think, right before the Senate voted and they voted 9-to-9 and tied on that particular piece of legislation. Here we are now. It's been quite a while. I think it's been about eight or nine months since the Senate voted and tied. Talking just to one of my really good House Republican sources the other day was saying, you know, no appetite right now for air pollution legislation over in the House. Over on the Senate side, are you guys done with Clear Skies? When do you guys throw in the towel on this issue?
Andrew Wheeler: Well, we have not thrown in the towel yet. In fact, the EPA has been working on some modeling request information for Senator Carper. I will say we've been waiting the last eight or nine months for a counteroffer to the several offers that Senator Inhofe and Senator Voinovich put on the table on Clear Skies. We've yet to receive a counteroffer. I understand the EPA is about ready to release their new modeling information. And hopefully after that we will get a counteroffer from the other side.
Darren Samuelsohn: Do you expect that we could see another try on a markup? Will you try and do a markup even if you don't know where the votes are right now in the committee?
Andrew Wheeler: No, I don't think we would try another markup unless we knew that we were going to get the bill reported out of the committee. We put a good product on the table that got real reductions, greater reductions than has ever been called for before. Greater reductions than the administration's CAIR rule. And that, unfortunately, went down on a 9-to-9 vote. We are waiting for a counteroffer and I don't believe the chairman would go to a markup until we have another product before us.
Darren Samuelsohn: Do you sense from the public that they're even interested in air pollution issues right now based on where everything is?
Andrew Wheeler: I think we're going to have to wait and see what their reaction is to the EPA's new modeling data.
Darren Samuelsohn: OK and then also, the timetable is shrinking of course. President Bush only has three more years in office. And we're going to see ...
Andrew Wheeler: Only three more years.
Darren Samuelsohn: Only three more years, but in terms of politics here in Washington things are going to get really noisy and pretty loud as people start to campaign for president and also campaign for a congressional re-election in 2006. I mean how much time arguably do you think is left for you guys to do this?
Andrew Wheeler: At least three more years for Senator Inhofe and three more years for the president. I think things can happen. And things, the general rule of thumb is environmental legislation won't move in an election year because it would be too political. Where if you go back and look at history most major environmental statutes have been signed into law in election years. If you go back to the Clean Air Act of 1990, you go back even to the SERA amendments, to the Superfund in '86, they have happened in election years. So I don't rule out something moving next year.
Darren Samuelsohn: Jump to another quick issue, Endangered Species Act, and that's before the Senate.
Andrew Wheeler: Yes.
Darren Samuelsohn: It passed the House. You're right now kind of waiting for the subcommittee chairman, Lincoln Chafee, to come up with some sort of a plan. How long does he have before you might want to take the issue away from him and try and move something to the full committee, if he can't come to some sort of an agreement?
Andrew Wheeler: We're not just waiting for Senator Chafee. We're working with Senator Chafee. And right now we're working with Senator Chafee's staff, Senator Clinton's staff, Senator Jeffords' staff and our staff are working together trying to come up with a bipartisan ESA proposal in the committee. So it's not a question of waiting for him or taking an issue away. We are working together, all four members.
Darren Samuelsohn: Does the bill that passed the House from Chairman Pombo, does that have the votes in the Senate?
Andrew Wheeler: I'm not sure. There certainly is some provisions in the Pombo bill that members of the House, the Democrats, did not like. There are some things that they did that got broad bipartisan support in the House, such as the critical habitat piece. So there's certainly some aspects of the endangered species bill from the House that we are taking a look at. And I have hopes that it could get bipartisan support in the Senate.
Darren Samuelsohn: Mr. Wheeler thanks so much for being here.
Andrew Wheeler: Absolutely.
Darren Samuelsohn: It's going to be a busy time, I'm sure, up on Capitol Hill.
Andrew Wheeler: Thank you for having me again.
Darren Samuelsohn: Until next time this is Darren Samuelsohn for another edition of OnPoint.
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