Wheeler touts ‘progress.’ Greens say he can thank Obama

Source: Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2018

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has made a point of touting the United States’ progress in curbing greenhouse gas emissions in recent speeches.

There’s just one problem, according to critics: Much of that progress happened under President Obama. And EPA under President Trump is trying to reverse it.

“To be fair, most of this ‘progress’ happened under the Obama Administration, which [Wheeler] fought every step of the way,” Sierra Club spokesman Brian Willis said in an email.

Wheeler’s recent speeches have focused on what he calls “pollution progress.” It’s the idea that the United States has dramatically cleaned up its air since the passage of the Clean Air Act and subsequent amendments.

Wheeler boasted in a speech to industry leaders and the press this week that the United States had slashed its carbon dioxide emissions despite Trump’s plans to exit the Paris climate agreement. He said the release of pollutants governed by the Clean Air Act has decreased 73 percent since 1970.

“Although they were all implementing the Paris climate accord, we were actually the ones reducing our CO2,” Wheeler said at EPA headquarters Tuesday (Greenwire, Oct. 2).

The first part of that event was open to the press. Wheeler took the opportunity to ask the media for help in circulating his optimistic perspective.

“I hope that the media here presents the information today to help share this story,” Wheeler said. “Most people for some reason think that the air is getting dirtier — it’s not. … I hope you talk about that wherever you go.”

On a call with reporters this summer, the acting EPA chief also hailed the agency’s long-term success in improving air quality as the economy grew robustly (E&E News PM, July 31).

“These are remarkable achievements that should be recognized, celebrated and replicated around the world,” Wheeler said during the call, which was tied to the release of EPA’s latest annual air trends report.

Critics, including environmentalists and public health experts, say Wheeler isn’t giving due credit to the Obama administration.

“It is quite ironic that he would claim credit for gains that were really made under the previous administration,” said Liz Perera, the Sierra Club’s director of climate policy.

David Pettit, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, echoed this sentiment.

“Wheeler’s taking credit for stuff that didn’t happen on his watch,” Pettit said. “EPA’s own data shows that. If you look at the data from EPA, you’ll see that some of the biggest decreases happened starting in 2008. Some of that was due to the recession. But a lot of it was due to the Obama administration policies.”

Market forces — particularly the rise of cheap natural gas — have been pushing the United States away from coal for years. But the Obama EPA also took steps to improve air quality by putting pressure on fossil fuels.

In 2011, EPA rolled out the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards — the first national standards for reducing mercury and other pollutants from power plants.

“MATS put a lot of pressure on coal,” said Miles Keogh, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, whose membership includes 35 state air regulators. “MATS directly led to cleanup investments and retirements of coal-fired power plants.”

In 2014, Obama also proposed the Clean Power Plan, his signature initiative for curbing CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants. While the proposed rule was stayed by the Supreme Court and never took effect, many utilities anticipated and planned for compliance.

The Obama EPA also tightened benchmarks for most of the six “criteria” pollutants governed by the Clean Air Act. That contrasted with the Bush administration, which failed to meet statutory deadlines for reviewing the standards to assess whether they adequately protected public health.

Progressing or regressing?

While Wheeler has touted pollution “progress,” critics say, his agency has launched a whirlwind of actions aimed at dismantling Obama’s climate legacy.

This month, EPA advanced a proposed rule that could weaken the analysis underpinning the Obama-era Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (Greenwire, Oct. 1).

And in August, EPA proposed rolling back Obama-era clean car standards and replacing the Clean Power Plan with a weaker version.

EPA’s own analysis suggests that the two proposals for cars and power plants would increase carbon emissions by as much as 141 million metric tons in 2030 — the equivalent of operating about 35 coal-fired power plants for a year (Climatewire, Aug. 24).

“On the one hand, you’ve got Wheeler taking credit for stuff that didn’t happen on his watch, and then on the other hand, you’ve got him advancing two proposals that are very damaging for GHGs,” Pettit said.

Wheeler’s rhetoric has been troubling to some conservatives, too. But for a different reason.

“What Andrew is doing kind of leaves me cold,” said Myron Ebell, a former Trump EPA transition team head and director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Energy and Environment. “I see why there’s a PR angle. But of course, it leaves me kind of cold because I don’t think greenhouse gas emissions are nearly as bad a thing as the environmental movement does.”

He added, “You know, they say we’re poisoning the atmosphere with greenhouse gas emissions. I don’t believe that.”