Trump’s EPA chief thinks Biden’s climate rules are doomed. But will Biden’s dollars survive?

Source: By JOSH SIEGEL, Politico • Posted: Monday, May 20, 2024

Andrew Wheeler also doesn’t rule out returning for Trump 2.0: “Whenever a president or a governor asks you to do something for your country, you step up and you do it.”

The GOP energy insider who led the Trump administration’s assault on environmental regulations is ready to start dismantling President Joe Biden’s climate agenda if he gets the chance.

But Biden’s hundreds of billions of dollars in clean energy subsidies might have a longer shelf life.

Former Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler told the POLITICO Energy podcast that he sees key pieces of Biden’s green policies falling quickly if former President Donald Trump wins in November: Courts will strike down Biden’s aggressive pollution limits for coal- and gas-fueled power plants, he predicted. He suspects the auto industry won’t fight to keep regulations pushing a swift transition to electric vehicles, especially in light of EVs’ disappointing sales numbers.

And Wheeler said he would be willing to take a lead role himself in erasing Biden’s most ambitious rules, which he contended were “rushed,” are legally dubious and would cause crippling blackouts.

But he doesn’t necessarily oppose continuing to spend on the massive clean energy incentives that Congress provided in Biden’s climate and infrastructure laws — some of which could go to technologies that fossil fuel companies favor, such as capturing power plants’ carbon pollution. They just can’t provide the legal justification for draconian environmental rules, he argued.

“You have a lot of funding in both of those laws for programs like [carbon capture], which is great,” Wheeler said. But he added: “The money is there. We need to see how it plays out before you put the regulatory demand in place.”

Besides offering a possible window into the agenda of a second Trump presidency, Wheeler’s remarks provide evidence that the presumptive GOP nominee would have experienced, capable hands eager to execute his policies — notwithstanding Trump’s 88 felony charges and the stain of Jan. 6. That would allay the worries that some oil and gas executives have expressed about the competence of a new Trump administration. And it could be nightmare fuel for Democrats already nervous about whether Biden’s $1.6 trillion climate and energy vision will survive the voters’ verdict this fall.

“If you care about the planet you need to understand that the presidency is everything, and Republicans are not being unclear about what they want to do,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a leading climate hawk. “They are aggressively, proudly and explicitly anti-clean energy and that’s what this election is going to be about.”

One potential reason for Democratic nervousness would be Wheeler’s persona as a capable, no-thrills technocrat. Unlike the stream of scandals that plagued Trump’s first EPA leader, former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, Wheeler didn’t generate headlines by installing a $43,000 phone booth in his office, dwelling in a lobbyist’s Capitol Hill condo or ordering his staff to shop for a used mattress from Trump’s Washington hotel.

Instead, Wheeler used his longtime experience navigating EPA regulations as an industry lobbyist and top congressional aide to undo as many of the Obama administration’s climate policies as he could. Some Republicans in Congress are eager to see him succeed in doing the same for Biden’s trademark regulations.

“He is an absolute safe choice,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee that oversees the EPA. “He’s more nerdy than he is political, and that’s probably not bad at the EPA. He would make the transition really easy. He comes in not just with all the knowledge — but almost with a running start just knowing the agency as well as he does.”

Wheeler “did such a credible, solid job,” said Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), another member of the environment committee. “He was a no-nonsense administrator. He was low-profile but kept the agency on a path that focused on protecting the environment without killing jobs and energy. He found the sweet spot.”

He’s not universally popular in EPA headquarters — two years ago, current and former agency employees helped lead a campaign by environmental groups that torpedoed his nomination to serve as Virginia’s secretary of natural and historic resources. (Wheeler also served as director of the state’s Office of Regulatory Management, a job Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin created for him.) After the Democrat-led Legislature blocked the nomination, Wheeler joined the law firm Holland & Hart this year as a partner and head of federal affairs.

But Wheeler said he’s ready to lead the EPA again if Trump wants him to.

“Whenever a president or a governor asks you to do something for your country, you step up and you do it,” he said. “I had a very good working relationship with the president, and I cherish that.”

Trump campaign spokesperson Karoline Leavitt would not comment on Wheeler specifically, but said in a statement that “on day one, President Trump will reverse Joe Biden’s extreme electric vehicle mandate, unleash American Energy to lower inflation for all Americans, and make America energy independent again.”

Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said he’s ready to lead the EPA again if Trump wants him to. | Pool photo by Susan Walsh

Wheeler had little good to say about Biden’s energy policies.

He maintains that Biden abandoned Trump’s push for U.S. “dominance” of the world energy markets — even though U.S. oil production has risen under Biden, reaching record highs last year, with the United States ranking as the globe’s top oil and natural gas producer. Wheeler also accused Biden of trying to push electric vehicles onto consumers who don’t want them and attempting to “end coal” with impossible-to-achieve pollution limits for power plants.

“President Biden has abdicated on energy,” Wheeler said. “So I think a Trump second term would go back to energy dominance.”

The power plant regulations, and EPA’s new limits on car and truck pollution, are core parts of Biden’s climate strategy to transition the U.S. off fossil fuels and toward clean energy. They are designed to work in conjunction with the congressionally approved subsidies for clean energy and electric vehicles.

But Wheeler said the combination of green initiatives would backfire: Slashing pollution limits for power plants and vehicles, at the same time that power companies are trying to meet surging demands from energy-intensive data centers and manufacturing plants, is a recipe for a crisis.

“You have the administration’s demands for new electricity for EV cars, and you have regulations that are hamstringing the utility sector on producing new electricity, and they can’t even produce enough to make up the deficit that the regulations cause,” he said.

Not to worry, though. Wheeler says federal courts will come to the rescue.

In particular, Wheeler predicted that the Biden EPA’s limits on carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants would fail to pass scrutiny under the conservative Supreme Court’s recently adopted “major questions” doctrine, which forbids agencies from imposing economically sweeping regulations without explicit approval from Congress. Wheeler said the regulation depends too heavily on power plant owners using carbon capture, a technology that — notwithstanding Biden’s massive subsidies — is not ready for prime time.

On transportation, Wheeler said a second Trump administration would undo Biden’s effort to turbocharge the adoption of electric vehicles by ratcheting down emissions from cars, trucks and SUVs.

That rule has drawn particular ire from Trump on the campaign trail, where he has inaccurately derided it as an “EV mandate.”

EPA has estimated that under its rule, 68 percent of new cars or light trucks sold in 2032 will be electric — surpassing Biden’s goal of 50 percent EV sales by the end of the decade. But Wheeler dismissed the EPA estimate as “more of an aspirational goal than a regulation.”

“We don’t have the electricity for that regulation. We don’t have the supply chain of materials, the critical minerals for the batteries,” he added. “I don’t think there’s any reasonable person who’s looking at the auto sector and thinks we’re going to be able to have two-thirds of our cars EVs by 2032. It just can’t physically be done.”

While the auto industry has expressed initial support for that Biden rule, Wheeler questioned whether car companies would stand by it if Trump were reelected.

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“They don’t necessarily want to go out and tell their customers or their investors, yes, this needs to be overturned, but they’re looking at the same data that everybody else is looking at — and that the American public is not fully behind EV cars yet,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler also predicted that the nation’s high court this summer will issue a ruling to rein in a legal doctrine, known as Chevron deference, that federal agencies have relied on for decades to defend their regulations.

The doctrine says courts should defer to agencies’ reasonable attempts to interpret ambiguous provisions in congressional statutes, and that judges should refrain from crafting their own readings of the laws. Ending that deference could derail EPA’s ability to issue climate rules.

The Biden administration left at least one potentially huge bit of unfinished business for a new Trump EPA chief: Earlier this year, it postponed an expected rule regulating climate pollution from thousands of power plants fueled by natural gas — the nation’s dominant power source. The agency isn’t due to take it up again until after the election.

Wheeler said he wouldn’t commit to following through on that rule if he were to be EPA chief again.

“That would be on the table, but there is so much to do [in] a four-year term for President Trump,” Wheeler said. “There’s going to be so much on the plate to do and reassess.”

Democrats who tangled with Wheeler in Virginia say returning him to the post would be bad news for the nation and the Earth’s climate.

“If he were to come back and work to undo everything the Biden-Harris administration has done, it would be catastrophic,” said Rep. Jennifer McClellan (D-Va.), who helped block Wheeler’s nomination as a state senator before being elected to Congress last year.

But Wheeler and his GOP allies believe he would easily be confirmed if Republicans have a majority in the Senate. They note that he’s been confirmed twice before — first as EPA deputy administrator in 2018 and then as administrator the following year.

“I would like to think that my record would speak for itself,” Wheeler said, touting actions he took as EPA administrator to address childhood exposure to lead, a potent neurotoxin, and to curb “forever chemicals” in drinking water.

“I’m not at all ashamed of anything that I did at the agency,” he said.

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