President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency’s air and radiation office told a Senate committee Wednesday that questions still exist about whether human activities are significantly contributing to climate change, a false claim that has been made by countless other administration officials.
At his confirmation hearing, William Wehrum, an industry attorney with the law firm Hunton & Williams LLP, said he hasn’t seen enough data to be able to make a final judgment on humans’ role in the warming of the planet. In fact, climate scientists have high confidence that the majority — and likely all — of global warming since 1950 is due to human activity.
“Do you believe with high confidence that human activities [are] the main driver of climate change?” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) asked Wehrum, who was nominated by Trump to be assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.
“I believe that’s an open question,” Wehrum responded.
Seemingly expecting the response, Merkley said Wehrum’s statement is a “coached answer” that is being used to sow uncertainty about the role of humans on climate change. “We have seen that in answer after answer that comes before this committee such as statements from Mr. Pruitt, statements from Mr. Tillerson, and statements from Mr. Perry,” the Oregon senator said. All three now-cabinet members offered similar answers during their Senate confirmation hearings.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Merkley showed Wehrum three charts — put together using data from NASA — showing the role of human activity in global warming. The nominee said he could not comment on the NASA chart showing the correlation between rising temperatures and rising greenhouse gas emissions, explaining, “I’m not familiar with those data.”
Wehrum’s refusal to acknowledge that human activities are the major contributor to climate change, according to Merkley, is the primary factor that disqualifies him for the position at the EPA. “No one can look at what is happening on the planet and see that nothing is happening unless you are deliberately determined to ignore that information. And that makes you quite frankly unacceptable to serve in this capacity,” Merkley said at the hearing.
“What we have seen is this Koch Brother-inspired determination not to acknowledge even the most fundamental facts and continuous excuses that perhaps the temperature of the planet is going up because of solar activity … or volcanic activity,” Merkley said. “But when NASA presents the information that shows there’s no correlation from those factors and extensive correlation from carbon dioxide and other global warming gases. Individuals like you simply refuse to acknowledge it.”
If confirmed, Wehrum would oversee a number of emissions-related regulations. In Trump’s administration, he would in effect be responsible for the bulk of a major deregulatory push that involves rolling back or potentially revising rules on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, methane emissions from the oil and natural gas sector, ozone pollution, and mercury.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Wehrum’s new boss if he wins Senate confirmation, has stated he is not convinced that carbon dioxide from human activity is the main driver of climate change. Pruitt reportedly is undertaking a formal initiative to evaluate climate science that will feature a “red team, blue team” approach meant to provide “back-and-forth critique” of climate science.
In his testimony, Wehrum praised Trump and Pruitt for setting a “clear agenda.” Under that agenda, the EPA “will eliminate needless and burdensome regulations, simplify and streamline compliance obligations, and strike a better balance between the twin goals of protecting human health and the environment and promoting the economic vitality of the nation,” he said.
Wehrum served as the acting administrator of that office from 2005 until 2007 but was blocked from confirmation by Democrats in the Senate who opposed his work on Bush-era environmental policies. He is likely to win Senate confirmation this time around because, unlike 10 years ago, he only needs a majority of Senate votes.
Like many of Trump’s nominees, Wehrum “has an astounding number of conflicts of interest given that he has regularly represented industry in their efforts to undermine clean air standards,” the Sierra Club said in response to his nomination.
John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the Senate should not confirm Wehrum because he would be Trump’s “dirty air czar.”
Wehrum has “dedicated his entire career to rolling back EPA health and clean air protections for Americans, while at EPA and serving his industry clients,” Walke said Wednesday in a statement. When he worked at the EPA in the clean air office in the George W. Bush administration, Wehrum’s tenure “was marked by extraordinarily harmful rollbacks and delays, and frequent court losses and rebukes from judges,” he said.