Senate confirms air nominee Wehrum, 49-47

Source: Sean Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, November 13, 2017

Bill Wehrum narrowly won Senate confirmation today to become U.S. EPA’s next air chief, putting a longtime industry attorney in charge of overseeing the nation’s air quality.

The 49-47 vote, which fell almost exactly along party lines, was expected after Wehrum’s nomination cleared a key procedural vote by a similar margin late yesterday.

No Democrats voted yes during today’s noontime vote. The only Republican to break ranks and oppose the nomination was Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) did not vote.

Wehrum, a partner and head of the administrative law group at the firm Hunton & Williams LLP, did not immediately reply to an emailed request for comment.

His confirmation comes two months after President Trump nominated him. Wehrum will become just the second Senate-confirmed appointee at EPA, joining Administrator Scott Pruitt.

For Wehrum, an avid long-distance runner, today’s denouement offered a happier ending than his first try at becoming what is formally known as assistant administrator of the Office of Air and Radiation.

After serving as counsel in the office from 2001 to 2005 during George W. Bush’a administration, he became its acting chief but resigned in 2007 to return to private practice after Senate Democrats blocked his bid to get the job permanently. Then, as now, his industry connections were a key issue.

Wehrum’s client roster as an attorney has lately included companies and trade groups like Koch Industries Inc., the American Petroleum Institute and the American Forest and Paper Association. If confirmed, he told EPA, he would not participate in matters involving former clients for a year after last providing a service.

His connections nonetheless sparked fierce opposition from environmental groups that questioned how he could objectively regulate entities he had previously represented.

Backers, including John Cruden, a now-retired career Justice Department attorney who headed EPA’s environmental division in the final years of the Obama administration, described Wehrum as committed to maintaining air quality protections. But Senate Democrats blasted him at an Environment and Public Works hearing last month.

Wehrum’s work on behalf of the American Petroleum Institute also worried farm-state Republicans. Last month, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) briefly held up a committee vote on the nomination until getting written commitments from Pruitt on the renewable fuel standard program.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who observers thought might be persuaded to support Wehrum’s nomination, instead announced his opposition in a statement earlier this morning that alluded to Wehrum’s work on behalf of the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association in a pending legal challenge to an Obama-era rule to limit exposure to silica dust.

“After reviewing his record, I am concerned that he does not fully appreciate the deadly impacts of silica and other harmful agents, which is troubling in light of the important role he will play in the protection of our communities on many issues,” Manchin said.

Before the vote, several other Democrats took to the Senate floor to urge opposition one last time. Among them was Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who lumped Wehrum into a “creep show” of Trump administration political appointees whom he called beholden to industry’s agenda.

“It is in some respects tragic that we are now in a situation in which an agency of the United States government has been handed over to the polluters lock, stock and barrel,” Whitehouse said.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) again lauded Wehrum as someone who could rein in “regulatory overreach” and “implement clean air policies in a balanced way.”

Coincidentally, a case involving one of his clients, the Brick Industry Association, was up for oral argument this morning at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Wehrum did not attend.

While Wehrum may be the “worst pick ever” to lead the air office, he “now has an opportunity to pour all of his energies into fulfilling, not frustrating the EPA’s mission to protect public health,” John Walke, head of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s clean air program, said in a statement after the vote. “We’ll be working vigorously to ensure he does so.”

The Senate is also expected to vote early this afternoon to advance the nomination of Derek Kan, a Lyft Inc. executive, to become the Transportation Department’s undersecretary for policy.