Nominee’s refusal to defend car waiver has historical roots

Source: Debra Kahn and Camille von Kaenel, E&E News reporters • Posted: Friday, October 6, 2017

The Trump administration’s nominee to head U.S. EPA’s air office ruffled clean car advocates yesterday over his refusal to guarantee California’s authority to regulate vehicle emissions — just as he did a decade ago.

Like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt before him, William Wehrum, a former EPA appointee and current partner at Hunton & Williams, refused to commit yesterday during a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to uphold California’s waiver from the Clean Air Act. It allows the state to set stricter auto emission standards than the federal government.

The current waiver lets California set its own tailpipe emissions standards and mandate that 15 percent of new cars by 2025 have zero emissions, policies that other states have signed onto. Major changes would require a new waiver. The Trump administration has already moved to reconsider the Obama administration’s joint federal-state emissions standards for model years 2021 to 2025, setting up negotiations among automakers, California and federal agencies (Climatewire, Sept. 27).

In response to questioning from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Wehrum — who served as acting head of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007 — said the Clean Air Act allows California to set its own auto emissions standards “in appropriate circumstances.”

“Senator, the provision that you referred to, in appropriate circumstances, certainly does allow California to implement its own motor vehicle standards,” he said. “And my commitment to you would be to understand that provision as much as possible and implement it as faithfully as possible.”

In 2006, Wehrum argued that Stephen Johnson, EPA’s administrator at the time, should deny California’s waiver. “I think we should assert the existence of preemption and propose to deny the waiver based on the absence of compelling and extraordinary conditions,” he wrote in an email in March 2006. Johnson followed Wehrum’s advice, denying the waiver in December 2007.

California’s opposition to the move tanked Wehrum’s previous bid to become air chief at EPA a decade ago. Former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) blocked him twice: first on the floor after he passed the Republican-controlled Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on a party-line vote, and second following Bush’s renomination of him in spring 2007, when she chaired the key panel and refused to give him a hearing.

Wehrum left the agency in May 2007, a month after Bush pulled his nomination.

“At the time, Wehrum showed hostility towards protecting his own citizens, and since then, he’s represented a raft of polluters, so one would suspect he has not changed,” said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign.

Simon Mui, a former staffer at EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality who now directs the Natural Resources Defense Council’s California vehicles and fuels program, said EPA’s Bush-era arguments against the waiver have been disproved.

“They put forth a series of arguments to basically argue that what California does doesn’t really matter on a global basis because this is a global issue,” he said. “What we’re finding is that, in fact, the very standards that California started, and which became federalized in essence through the current standards, are probably the single biggest greenhouse gas emission reduction strategy adopted globally thus far.”