Senate confirms lobbyist with ‘astounding’ number of conflicts of interest to head EPA air office

Fossil fuel lobbyist confirmed to EPA post on a party-line vote.

In a party-line vote, the Senate confirmed William Wehrum on November 9, 2017, to head the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation. CREDIT: screenshot/Senate EPW committee
In a party-line vote, the Senate confirmed William Wehrum on November 9, 2017, to head the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation. CREDIT: screenshot/Senate EPW committee

William Wehrum, an industry lawyer and lobbyist, has represented companies who regularly filed legal challenges to the Environmental Protection Agency’s clean air regulations. Nonetheless, President Donald Trump nominated him to head the office at the EPA responsible for ensuring Americans have clean air.

Senate Republicans agreed with the Trump administration that Wehrum was the right person for the job. On a party-line vote of 49 to 47, the Senate approved Wehrum on Thursday to lead the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. However, what happens when cases involving Wehrum’s former industry clients come before the agency remains to be seen.

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.

At the law firm of Hunton & Williams, Wehrum’s clients included the American Petroleum Institute (API), the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, the American Chemistry Council, and the National Association of Manufacturers. Each of these trade associations filed litigation against the EPA under President Barack Obama to weaken rules that could harm their member companies’ bottom line.

Wehrum will likely face calls to recuse himself from legal challenges to the EPA’s methane rule for oil and gas since he represented API, the leading trade for oil and gas producers, in its challenge of the rule, Law360 reported. But Wehrum may not have to recuse himself from a potential revision or repeal of the methane rule because it would involve a new, separate rule-making process, according to the report.

Out of the gate, that theory could be put to the test. The EPA ethics office may be ordered to rule on whether Wehrum can take part in a case that will affect API. The agency is expected to soon announce a two-year delay of the Obama administration-era rule setting new standards for methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from oil and gas wells not yet drilled.

The EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation oversees air pollution, climate change, auto emissions and other issues. Along with the methane restrictions, several Obama-era rules came out of Wehrum’s new office, including restrictions on ozone and the signature Clean Power Plan.

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. More than 10 years ago, Bush wanted Wehrum to fill the same position that he will now serve under Trump. As his nomination was under consideration, Wehrum served as acting administrator of the office from 2005 until 2007.

But Senate Democrats successfully blocked Wehrum from filling the position in 2007. Unlike Senate rules 10 years ago, his confirmation needed only a majority of votes this time around.

The Senate vote to confirm Wehrum did not surprise environmental groups. And yet they remain confused that someone with such strong ties to polluting industries will be filling a position whose mission is antithetical to the official’s past work. “Like other Trump nominees, he has made a career leading efforts to weaken standards that protect us from mercury, silica, lead, and smog at the expense of the health and safety of children, workers, and communities,” said Andrea Delgado, legislative director for health communities for Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization.

In late September, a week before his confirmation, Wehrum appeared in federal court on behalf of one of his industry clients to argue against new standards meant to protect workers from airborne silica dust, which is so fine that particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause health problems, such as fatal lung disease and cancer.

Wehrum had no qualms about representing companies fighting an Obama-era rule that protects workers from exposure to harmful silica dust as he prepared for his confirmation hearing. During oral arguments, Wehrum said his clients oppose the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s decision to lower the silica exposure limit for workers, telling the court: “People are designed to deal with dust. People are in dusty environments all the time and it doesn’t kill them.”

After the Senate vote to confirm Wehrum, David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, tweeted that he is eager to see Wehrum and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt start protecting the American people. “Doing our best to hold our breath ’til that happens,” Doniger wrote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) applauded the Senate’s confirmation of Wehrum as a win for reining in the EPA’s work. “Mr. Wehrum will continue the work of this EPA to undo the damage of the Obama administration overreach,” McConnell said in a tweet.

Wehrum’s role in dismantling the Obama-era regulations has yet to be defined, given his potential conflicts of interest. Federal government guidelines require employees “not participate in a particular matter involving specific parties… in which he knows a person with whom he has a covered relationship is or represents a party, if he determines that a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts would question his impartiality in the matter.”

Lawyers who move from private practice to a federal agency would have to recuse themselves from any ongoing matter involving former clients, Law360 explained.