For more than a year, first as a candidate and then as president, Donald Trump has promised to dismantle the Clean Power Plan, the previous administration’s far-reaching effort to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.
That was the easy part.
The EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation now has to rewrite the regulation in a way that stands up to inevitable lawsuits from environmentalists. That job will fall to Bill Wehrum, an experienced but controversial former agency official whom the Senate confirmed Thursday to be the assistant administrator of air and radiation, one of the most consequential positions in the EPA.
While many other mid-tier Trump nominees remain in legislative limbo — having passed committee hearings but still waiting on a full Senate vote -- Wehrum had to wait only 15 days between when the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced his nomination in late October and when the Senate confirmed him.
“It’s a pretty good indication of the importance of this position that they moved it ahead of a few others,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, who headed EPA's air and radiation office under President George W. Bush.
Wehrum squeaked through the chamber in a 49-to-47 vote with Susan Collins (R-Maine) as the lone Republican to cross the aisle. Two Democrats and two Republicans did not vote.
This will not be Wehrum’s first tour at the EPA. He spent years at the agency during the Bush administration, where he eventually rose to the position of acting head of the air office in 2005. Bush initially nominated Wehrum to lead the office in 2006 but eventually withdrew his candidacy after it became clear the Senate did not intend to confirm him.
After serving in the Bush administration, Wehrum worked as a partner at the law firm of Hunton & Williams, where he has worked on various Clean Air Act issues and represented a variety of oil, gas, coal and chemical companies.
That work involved representing several industry trade groups, including the American Petroleum Institute, in legal challenges to Obama-era air rules.
Wehrum’s history as a lobbyist led Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) — one of the two Democrats whose states rely on fossil fuels voted Wehrum’s boss, EPA chief Scott Pruitt, into office in February and often side with Republicans on energy issues — to cast a ballot against Wehrum.
“I have long been an advocate for safe workplaces for our miners and all of our nation’s workers,” Manchin said in a statement. “After reviewing his record, I am concerned that he does not fully appreciate the deadly impacts of silica and other harmful agents.”
The other Democrat who voted for Pruitt, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, voted against Wehrum, as well.
The Clean Power Plan was part of the Obama administration’s answer to a 2007 Supreme Court order that ultimately forced the EPA to regulate the emissions of climate-warming gases. Whatever replacement to the Obama-era climate rules the EPA lands on must survive the legal challenges that environmental groups will undoubtedly bring against it.
Someone with Wehrum’s experience, Holmstead said, will be able to redo the rules “in a thoughtful way that will be enduring.”
Many of those environmental groups poised to bring lawsuits bristled at the news of Wehrum’s confirmation Thursday and signaled they are ready to take the agency to court.
“It’s genuinely hard to fathom someone less suited to lead clean air efforts at the EPA than Bill Wehrum,” Andrea Delgado, a legislative director for the legal advocacy group Earthjustice, said in a statement. “While he works overtime to unwind crucial health safeguards that keep our air clean, we will be watching his every move and stand ready to hold him accountable if he oversteps his authorities.”
In a last-minute appeal on the Senate floor Thursday, Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the EPW Committee, offered a withering critique of Wehrum.
“We have already seen Mr. Wehrum’s extreme agenda at the EPA once before,” Carper said. “It would be the height of irresponsibility and a shirking of our moral obligation to confirm him here today.”
During his committee hearing in October, Democrats skewered him, as well. While Wehrum acknowledged that humans contribute to climate change, he said it was an “open question" as to whether people are a major driver.
One of the committee's Democrats, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, then showed Wehrum three charts of NASA data demonstrating the broad scientific consensus linking between human activity and global warming.
Wehrum responded, “I’m not familiar with those data.”
Brady Dennis contributed to this report.
|You are reading The Energy 202, our must-read tipsheet on energy and the environment.|
|Not a regular subscriber?|
-- More on Kathleen Harnett White: The Post's Philip Bump took a look at the confirmation hearing for President Trump’s pick to lead his Council on Environmental Quality.
"Under President Barack Obama, the council’s initiatives included implementing sustainability efforts throughout the executive branch and establishing systems for addressing climate change,” Bump writes. “Based on her testimony Wednesday during a confirmation hearing, it’s safe to assume that Hartnett White will not continue similar efforts."
Bump zooms in on some of Hartnett White’s remarks in responding to questions from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who wanted to know whether the nominee was aware of the extent to which oceans trap heat, and whether water expands when it’s warmer.
To the first question, Hartnett White replied “that, whatever the answer, it’s contested. How it’s contested isn’t clear; all she knows is that it is. Her knowledge of the issue is limited to one data point: Uncertainty exists," writes Bump.
As for the second issue: "White knows that water expands as it warms. Most humans do. What she’s doing is offering a political answer to a question asked in a political context. The question, then, is why she sees it as politically valuable to avoid acknowledging that water expands as it warms,” Bump writes. “The answer goes back to our point at the outset. White was probably nominated to run the CEQ because she’s willing to brush aside the scientific consensus on climate change, not in spite of it. If that means that an awkward video trickles out over social media for one day, so be it.”
See the exchange below:
--The elusive EPA: Politico reported Thursday that after a tip Pruitt was flying first class on a flight from Washington to Detroit on Wednesday, an agency spokeswoman “wouldn’t say where he was going or what he was doing once he arrived.”
The report added the agency still is not regularly providing Pruitt’s schedule, though it had vowed to do so back in September. The New Republic reported then the EPA decided to begin releasing Pruitt’s schedule because of “public interest,” and planned to do so in response to a FOIA request from the magazine and others.
-- Reg rollback continues: The EPA has proposed a rule that would restrict emission standards for truck components, an Obama administration regulation aimed at controlling traditional air pollutants, reports our colleague Juliet Eilperin. Known as the glider rule, the regulation was supported by major trucking groups and engine manufacturers, but vehemently opposed by companies that produce the affected truck components, called gliders and trailers.
-- FERC chairman outlines coal and nuclear plan: According to Bloomberg News's Catherine Traywick and Rebecca Kern, "Neil Chatterjee, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said Thursday he’s working on a short-term plan to keep at-risk coal and nuclear generators online... Chatterjee said he expects to release his plan to rescue plants by Dec. 11, along with a framework for completing a broader rule that addresses Perry’s proposal. For now, the commission’s staff is working on a legal means of saving as many "resilient" plants as possible, Chatterjee said."
But passage of that plan is far from guaranteed. FERC's two other commissioners, Cheryl LaFleur and Robert Powelson, have both been publicly skeptical of Energy Secretary Rick Perry's push.
-- Many in Puerto Rico were plunged back into darkness, including in the capital of San Juan, after a main power line failed on Thursday morning. BuzzFeed reported the line was one that was repaired by Whitefish Energy, the small Montana-based company at the center of an investigation over the controversial no-bid contract it received to bring back power on the island (Whitefish denied the outage was due to any of its work.) Before the outage, 43 percent of the island's power had beem restored since Hurricane Maria pummeled the island over a month ago. That percentage plummeted to 18 percent on Thursday.
By late yesterday, CNN reported power was returning to the blacked-out areas. "It was a mechanical issue on the line, could have happened at any line," PREPA official Fernando Padilla said. "It's being patrolled and repaired by PREPA." A spokesman for PREPA said he expected 42 percent power to be back by this morning.
Many of the areas that lost power again just recently had their electricity restored:
From CBS News's David Begnaud:
Thursday in Puerto Rico— David Begnaud (@DavidBegnaud) November 9, 2017
50 days after Maria
*18% power generation (there was a failure of the Cambalache Mantaí 230KV line; municipalities in the North have been affected)
*88% of ppl have water (boil advisory remains in effect)
It’s 85 degrees here, today.
Blackout Puerto Rico— David Begnaud (@DavidBegnaud) November 9, 2017
PREPA confirms power generation has plummeted to 18% after a failure of Cambalache Manatee 230KV line. Municipalities in the North have been affected.
It could be tonight or tomorrow morning before power is restored.
Tonight, in Puerto Rico.— David Begnaud (@DavidBegnaud) November 10, 2017
Day 50 after Maria pic.twitter.com/LtVcTQSiFK
-- To stay or to go: The aftermath of Maria and the crawling relief efforts are prompting debate among Puerto Ricans about whether to stay to rebuild the island, or to relocate to the U.S. mainland, the Associated Press reports.
Of the more than 140,000 islanders who have reportedly left since Maria, more than 130,000 went to Florida -- others relocated to Pennsylvania, Texas, New York and New Jersey, according to researchers at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, per the AP.
-- Tom Steyer dropped another $10 million on Trump impeachment ads: According to Politico's Gabriel Debenedetti, "Steyer also said he would fund two new ads in addition to the one that’s been backed by an existing $10 million buy. More than 1.9 million Americans have now signed his weeks-old petition to impeach Trump, Steyer said on the call." Read more about Steyer's ad campaign in The Energy 202 from Thursday.
-- Bloomberg, too: Earlier this week, fellow billionaire Michael Bloomberg dropped $50 million of his own fortune investment to help nations, starting in Europe, shift away from burning coal in order to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions just as climate negotiators meet in Bonn, Germany. The Europe Beyond Coal campaign will be a sister campaign Bloomberg's efforts in the United States.
-- Climate observation systems around the world “are just aging out,” says Elizabeth Weatherhead, an atmospheric scientist from the University of Colorado. Weatherhead is the lead author on a new report on the future of climate observing networks that warned funding for the systems is being cut.
“We just closed the two observing stations that are covering the tropics,” she told Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow. “We have no great understanding of what’s going on with water vapor and temperature in the tropics and we need that within a couple tenths of degree.”
Weatherhead said that although systems are available for observing things such as weather, earth research, crops, and water resources, “very few of them are designed with sampling and accuracy required to resolve the 1 percent or smaller changes over decades that are critical to testing climate prediction.”
-- Literally underwater: A new analysis by Zillow found that nearly 2 million homes could be vulnerable to flooding or physically underwater by 2100 if oceans rise by six feet. The six-foot mark, Michele Lerner writes for The Washington Post, is a midpoint between what the government predicts is a “very likely” 4.3-foot rise and a higher eight-foot-or-greater rise, which “cannot be excluded.”
Florida and New York City top the list of major areas that would be most affected by such a sea rise. Upper Township, N.J., Salisbury, Md., Virginia Beach and Boston are also among the top 10 areas.
And finally, here are some of the best long reads of the week for your Veterans Day weekend:
From the Center for Public Integrity: A new culture of conflict and industry influence is shutting out career EPA officials in favor of decisions by the few dozen political appointees named under President Trump. These career staffers don’t get face time with Scott Pruitt, the head of the agency, and usually receive marching orders from the appointees, Rachel Leven writes. William Ruckelshaus, EPA chief under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, told Leven: “He wants to dismantle — not improve or reform — the regulatory system for protecting public health and the environment.”
From The Atlantic: The Zombie Diseases of Climate Change. “Every winter, a sheet of ice blossoms over the Arctic sea, and the soils seize shut with frost. Then, during the long summer days, the ice breaks up and the permafrost partially thaws,” Robinson Meyer writes. “The newly active permafrost is packed with old stuff: dead plants, dead animals, mosses buried and reburied by dust and snow. This matter, long protected from decomposition by the cold, is finally rotting, and releasing gases into the atmosphere that could quicken the rate of global warming …. Climate change, in other words, could awaken Earth’s forgotten pathogens. It is one of the most bizarre symptoms of global warming. And it has already begun to happen.”
Read Politico Magazine’s dispatch from Johnstown, Pa., where residents are wary of the promises made by President Trump but haven’t wavered in their support. From Michael Kruse: “A year later, the local unemployment rate has ticked down, and activity in a few coal mines has ticked up. Beyond that, though, not much has changed —at least not for the better. Johnstown and the surrounding region are struggling in the same ways and for the same reasons. The drug problem is just as bad. ‘There’s nothing good in the area,’ Schilling said the other day in her living room. ‘I don’t have anything good to say about anything in this area. It’s sad.’ Even so, her backing for Trump is utterly undiminished: ‘I’m a supporter of him, 100 percent.”
- House Natural Resources Committee is scheduled for an oversight hearing on “The Need for Transparent Financial Accountability in Territories’ Disaster Recovery Efforts” for Nov. 14.
Watch an ocean of clouds lap over Colorado Springs:
GOP senators are calling on Roy Moore to withdraw from a Senate race in Alabama if allegations of sexual misconduct are true:
Stephen Colbert talks about the allegations against Roy Moore:
Late-night comedians address the allegations against Louis C.K.:
First lady Melania Trump visited the panda enclosure at the Beijing Zoo: