EPA Air Chief Exits as Deregulatory Agenda Hangs in Balance (3)

June 26, 2019, 2:45 PMUpdated: June 26, 2019, 11:17 PM

EPA’s air chief Bill Wehrum’s exit from the agency surprised many observers, as critical portions of his agenda remain unfinished.

But observers said Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator Anne Idsal, who is set to take over Wehrum’s responsibilities as acting assistant administrator, is likely to continue many of Wehrum’s priority actions.

Wehrum’s departure, announced June 26 in a statement from Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, comes as the agency’s air office works to finish rewrites of Obama-era regulations governing emissions from power plants, automobiles, and oil wells.

His departure also follows allegations from environmental groups, watchdog organizations, and House Democrats that he violated his ethics agreements.

Wehrum has denied allegations of misconduct. He told The Washington Post in February he has “tried to be absolutely strict and assiduous” in complying with his ethical obligations “because it doesn’t do me any good, and it doesn’t do the agency any good, to be doing things that people see as unethical.”

Wehrum is set to leave June 30, weeks after finalizing a regulation replacing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan that was seen as a top Trump administration priority. Critics of the EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation are tying his exit to ongoing investigations into his ethical conduct, but those close to Wehrum say he had been planning to leave the agency for months.

Wheeler praised Wehrum in the statement for finalizing that rule and “for the tremendous progress he has made in so many other regulatory initiatives.”

Unfinished Business

Wehrum’s exit is prompting questions about what might happen to some of his regulatory priorities, including changes to an air pollution permitting program known as new source review.

Both critics and backers of Wehrum agree he brought a strong knowledge of the Clean Air Act that allowed him to navigate the regulatory process more adeptly than other early Trump EPA officials, such as former Administrator Scott Pruitt, who were Washington outsiders.

“Bill departs at a time when much of his deregulatory agenda is still in the preliminary phases,” Thomas Lorenzen, a partner with Crowell & Moring LLP, told Bloomberg Environment.

And what the air office has completed under Wehrum’s tenure, such as the replacement to the Obama-era Clean Power Plan unveiled June 19, still faces a court test, he said, adding Wheeler and Idsal will need to send some signals about the fate of Wehrum’s priorities.

Some at the EPA are already suggesting Wehrum’s departure could slow ongoing rulemakings, especially related to the revisions to the new source review permitting program.

"[A] lot of projects that are in the pipeline may get delayed even more,” Raj Rao, new source review group leader at the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, said June 26 at the Air & Waste Management Association’s annual meeting in Quebec City.

Wehrum had been slated to give the keynote address at the meeting June 25, but abruptly canceled.

‘EPA Is A Mess’

Wehrum’s critics are linking his sudden departure with increasing scrutiny of his industry ties.

“The EPA is a mess and has been through the entire Trump administration,” said Jordan Libowitz, communications director for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

CREW in April requested that the EPA’s inspector general investigate whether Wehrum violated his ethics pledge by meeting with and working on issues involving his former clients—including a meeting with members of his former law firm shortly after his confirmation.

Wehrum’s potential ethical violations go “straight to the heart of the EPA,” he said.

Libowitz added Wehrum’s advocacy for the interests of businesses who weaken the EPA’s regulations “puts the entire agency’s work at risk.”

Before joining the EPA in November 2017, Wehrum was an attorney with Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, formerly Hunton and Williams, where he represented a bevy of companies and industry groups challenging Obama-era climate and environmental regulations.

Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce committee in April launched a probe of one of those groups—the Utility Air Regulatory Group, a coalition of electric utilities. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who chairs the committee, said in a statement that investigation will continue even with Wehrum’s departure.

Exit in the Plan

But those close to Wehrum say his plan always was to only remain at the EPA for a couple of years.

Getting the Affordable Clean Energy rule, the replacement for the Clean Power Plan, to the regulatory finish line was Wehrum’s top priority, Jeff Holmstead, a partner with Bracewell LLP, told Bloomberg Environment. Holmstead was the EPA’s air chief during the George W. Bush administration, during which time Wehrum served as his No. 2.

Ethics allegations from Wehrum’s critics had nothing to do with the air chief’s decision to leave, Holmstead said, calling Wehrum “a very careful guy” who coordinated everything he did with EPA ethics officials.

Within EPA, “I think Bill will be remembered as the person who really was able to reestablish a relationship between the political leadership and EPA career staff,” Holmstead said. “I think a lot of people have forgotten just how dysfunctional things were at the outset of the Trump administration.”

When Wehrum arrived, “I think that was really finally when the agency started to get back to work,” Holmstead said.

Experienced Successor

Idsal, who will take over for Wehrum as acting air chief, previously served as the head of Region 6, which oversees Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, and New Mexico. She moved to EPA headquarters in March to serve as principal deputy assistant administrator in the air office.

Before joining the EPA, she held several state-level positions in Texas, including as general counsel for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“Idsal is well qualified to take over leadership of the air office,” Clara Poffenberger, a Virginia-based environmental law and policy attorney, said at a panel discussion on Clean Air Act regulatory developments at a conference in Quebec City. “She is experienced and has engaged very well with states. With her state experience and recognition of industry issues, she is likely to get more done with less scandal surrounding her.”

But some local critics in Texas lamented the appointment, saying the EPA’s regional office had ceded enforcement actions to city and county officials under Idsal’s tenure. Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, also pointed to a lax track record of penalizing violations at the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, where Idsal spent more than four years.

“I’m very concerned with her appointment and hope that past performance isn’t predictive of what she’ll be like at running the air program at EPA,” he said.

—With assistance from Amena Saiyid (Bloomberg Environment), Paul Stinson (Bloomberg Law), and Jennifer Dlouhy (Bloomberg News).

©2019 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission

(Adds local critique of Idsal in last two paragraphs.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Abby Smith in Washington at asmith@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com

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