A top official at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) repeated several times at a House hearing on Wednesday that it’s important for the agency to “stay in its lane.”
On questions about electric grid reliability, William Wehrum, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, told lawmakers: “I’m not a grid guy. I’m an air guy.”
Wehrum previously served as an attorney and lobbyist for companies regulated by the EPA before joining the Trump administration. “It’s really important for me to stay in my lane,” he told the lawmakers. “And I think part of the problem in the past with EPA is that it’s tried to assume responsibility for things it’s not responsible for.”
At the hearing, none of the members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment asked Wehrum whether he believes the EPA has crossed into other lanes since his boss, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, took control of the agency.
One prominent example, however, is the expensive trip Pruitt and a large team of staffers and body guards took to Morocco where the EPA administrator, among other things, promoted the export of U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG).
After Pruitt’s visit to the North African nation last December, the EPA’s press office trumpeted the fact that the administrator attended meetings with Moroccan officials where he discussed the potential benefits of U.S. LNG on Morocco’s economy.
The unusual nature of the trip came up last month at a House hearing when Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) asked Pruitt why he spent part of his time in Morocco promoting the benefits of importing LNG from the United States.
“I can’t, for the life of me, imagine why an EPA administrator would be over there promoting energy sales,” Pingree said. “We have a Department of Energy. You should be thinking much more about some of the challenges with [liquefied natural gas], and why you would be on the other side.”
In another highly unusual move for an EPA official, one of Pruitt’s advisers promised coal industry officials that the agency is working for them. “I’m here to talk to you to make sure what we’re doing in D.C. is beneficial for you,” EPA senior policy advisor Mandy Gunasekara said last year at a coal industry conference. “If it’s not working, I want to hear about it so that we can work it out.”
Another example of Pruitt seemingly crossing an ethical line occurred when he appeared in a video, published on the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association website last August, in which he shared inaccurate information about the Waters of the United States Rule, parroting industry talking-points like the idea that the rule would have regulated a “puddle, a dry creek bed, and ephemeral drainage ditches across the country.”
The video asked farmers and ranchers to provide comment on the repeal of the rule and directs viewers to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s website, which urged users to “Take Action Now – Tell EPA to Kill WOTUS Today!”
Federal law prohibits taxpayer dollars from being used, directly or indirectly, for “publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States.” Pruitt’s appearance in the video has also raised red-flags with ethics experts, who noted that his behavior gave the appearance of an industry that favors one sector over another.
Pruitt also took a sharp turn away from the traditional duties of an EPA administrator when he publicly floated the idea of having televised climate science debates. Around the same time, on a trip to Rome in June 2017, Pruitt met with a senior Roman Catholic leader, who once in a speech called “hysteric and extreme claims about global warming … a symptom of pagan emptiness.”
During his dinner with Cardinal George Pell — who was facing sexual abuse allegations at the time — they reportedly discussed an April 2017 Wall Street Journal op-ed by New York University professor Steven Koonin. The op-ed promoted a red team-blue team idea that caught Pruitt’s attention and inspired him to look into the possibility of televising them as a debate.
Pruitt also has spoken to numerous industry groups while ignoring other interest groups during his tenure as EPA administrator, a questionable practice for the nation’s top environmental regulator. A ThinkProgress analysis found that during his first 10 months as administrator, Pruitt gave more than 30 speeches to industry groups and companies regulated by the EPA. Over the same period of time, Pruitt gave no speeches to environmental or public health groups.
Furthermore, the frequency with which Pruitt has visited think tanks is more than double that of his two most recent predecessors.
Despite the comment about “staying in his lane” on grid reliability, Wehrum ended up offering his opinion on the issue to the House committee.
“Grid reliability is enormously important — and there’s a real live debate going on right now about all the coal plant retirements, which are resilient,” Wehrum told Rep. David McKinely (R-WV), who strongly favors federal intervention in saving coal plants. “They have fuel on site. They can operate for days and sometimes weeks without additional fuel delivery.”
Wehrum has spent his career — whether at the EPA under George W. Bush or as an industry lobbyist — working to roll back the EPA’s clean air protections. During the George W. Bush administration, he served as acting administrator of the Office of Air and Radiation from 2005 until 2007. And only months before he was confirmed to his current post, Wehrum was lobbying the EPA to loosen air pollution rules, according to emails recently made public by the Sierra Club through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Wehrum’s criticism of previous administrations assuming too much authority was likely a reference to the Clean Power Plan, a rule devised by President Obama’s EPA to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. Pruitt has cited the Clean Power Plan as an example of the agency taking action that goes beyond its legal authority.
Despite Pruitt’s efforts to repeal the Clean Power Plan, most environmental law experts believe the EPA has clear authority to regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants. Even some opponents of the plan have conceded the agency has authority regulate such emissions.