Wehrum on warming: ‘I’m trying to figure that out’

Source: Sean Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Against the backdrop of an increasingly grim scientific prognosis on climate change’s effects, EPA air chief Bill Wehrum said Friday that he’s still studying the subject and voiced uncertainty about whether it amounts to a crisis.

“I’m trying to figure that out,” Wehrum, a former industry lawyer, said during a question-and-answer session at an afternoon forum hosted by the Society of Environmental Journalists. While acknowledging that he’s read several chapters of the latest National Climate Assessment, Wehrum stopped short of volunteering any opinion on the report’s conclusions that a warming climate is already inflicting damage across the United States and that current efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions are inadequate.

Wehrum also sidestepped a question from moderator Emily Holden asking how much more time the Trump administration will need to reach a judgment on climate science and what EPA should do in response.

“I could spend all of my available time and, I’m sure, not understand everything that there is to understand,” Wehrum said. “And science evolves and science changes — that’s what science is.”

His studied caveats, however, remain at odds with the scientific consensus that the impact of rising temperatures is certain to worsen without more aggressive action to cut worldwide carbon releases. The national assessment, produced by scientists at 13 federal agencies and released in late November, predicts hundreds of billions of dollars in annual losses to the U.S. economy by the end of the century if emissions continue to grow at historic rates.

“I stay awake at night worrying about a lot of things at the agency, and I would say [climate change registers at] 8 or 9 [on a 10-point scale],” acting EPA chief Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, said earlier this month at a Senate confirmation hearing to get the job permanently. But while Wheeler called climate change a “huge issue” warranting global action, he declined to label it “the greatest crisis” (Climatewire, Jan. 17).

Wheeler had also previously downplayed the national assessment’s dire forecast, saying that he questioned some of the authors’ assumptions while accusing the media of dwelling on the worst-case scenario (Greenwire, Nov. 28, 2018).

Affordable Clean Energy rule, MATS review

At Friday’s forum, billed as a journalists’ guide to energy and environmental issues in the coming year, Wehrum labeled reduction of carbon emissions as one of many priorities for EPA. He also strongly defended the Trump administration’s proposed replacement for the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which was intended to cut carbon releases from coal-fired power plants, but has been blocked by the Supreme Court from taking effect.

While that tentative alternative, known as the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, has yet to be made final, Wehrum called it “a real success story.”

Asked by Holden, a former E&E News reporter who now works for The Guardian, about EPA’s own analysis that the ACE proposal could eventually lead to as many as 1,400 more premature deaths per year in comparison with the stricter pollution limits set by the Clean Power Plan, Wehrum suggested that the contrast was pointless.

The Clean Power Plan has never been implemented and will likely be struck down if the Supreme Court has the opportunity, he said. “The real comparison is how does ACE stack up against the world as it really is right now.”

On that basis, he said, the proposed rule, in conjunction with cheap natural gas and other developments that are putting coal plants out of business, “makes real progress” and would “move the needle even farther down.”

On a separate front, Wehrum was especially eager to push back against what he called misunderstanding and “misreporting” of EPA’s recently unveiled bid to scrap the legal justification that undergirds the agency’s 2012 crackdown on releases of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants.

The power industry has almost fully implemented what are formally known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. EPA is nonetheless seeking to revoke the long-standing determination that it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate power plant emissions of airborne toxics “because we think we have to,” he said.

In a 2015 ruling, the Supreme Court allowed implementation of the standards to proceed, but found that EPA had failed to consider compliance costs in making the original “appropriate and necessary” determination. The agency responded the next year with a “supplemental finding” that reaffirmed its initial decision. The Trump administration now disputes it on the grounds that EPA relied heavily on health “co-benefits” from expected reductions in pollutants apart from those directly regulated under the standards.

“Our job is to implement the law as we believe it should be implemented, and we think that finding was mistaken,” Wehrum said. As it currently reads, the proposed rule would leave the actual emissions standards intact. Like Wheeler, Wehrum predicted that revocation would not prompt power plants to turn off existing pollution controls or increase emissions.

If the proposal is made final, however, critics say that it could open the door for coal industry lawsuits aimed at toppling the actual standards. They also say that it could eventually undercut EPA’s ability to use co-benefits to justify future air pollution regulations.

In a brief interview after the forum, Wehrum acknowledged that possibility under certain circumstances, but added that “we’re not there.”

“All we’re doing right now is MATS, and that’s our perspective,” he said.

‘Doing a lot of good things’

In response to another question during the almost 30-minute session, Wehrum also took the opportunity to rebut critics’ presumption that he’s pursuing an agenda favorable to utilities, refineries and other industries that he previously represented as a lawyer in private practice.

“I don’t feel like I’m ideological; what I feel like is I call balls and strikes as I see them,” he said, resorting to an analogy made famous by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts during his 2005 Senate confirmation hearing.

This is Wehrum’s second tour at EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. During George W. Bush’s administration, he served from 2001 to 2007 first as counsel and then as acting chief, but left after Democrats blocked him from getting the latter job on a Senate-confirmed basis. He decided to return, he said, because “it’s important for people who understand the issues, who understand the law, who understand the technology and the science to be in jobs like this.”

“I feel like I’m really good at what I do,” he added a moment later after alluding to the importance of EPA’s mission to protect public health and the environment. “I’m very happy to be here, and I feel like we’re doing a lot of good things.”