THE LIGHTBULB

President Trump's Environmental Protection Agency has been criticized for hiring former lobbyists who once worked for industries they're now expected to regulate. The man who Trump has nominated to become his EPA head, for instance, is ex-coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler.

The potential for conflicts of interest is illustrated sharply by The Post's Juliet Eilperin in a piece out this morning about Bill Wehrum, the EPA official in charge of regulating the nation's air quality.

Eilperin reports that Wehrum met Dec. 7, 2017, at his former law firm with representatives of four of the country's largest power companies — a gathering including two clients Wehrum had before taking the EPA job — “to brief them on the Trump administration’s plans to weaken federal environmental regulations.”

From Eilperin:

Since joining the EPA in November 2017, Wehrum acknowledges that he has met with two former clients at his old firm — without consulting in advance with ethics officials, even though they had cautioned him about such interactions. He also weighed in on a policy shift that could have influenced litigation involving DTE Energy, a Detroit-based utility represented by his former firm.”

Democrats describe the meeting at the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth as a clear violation of ethics rules, especially since Wehrum didn't seek clearance from ethics officials before taking it. But Wehrum defended his conduct as aboveboard in an interview with The Post:

“I have, from day one, tried to be absolutely strict and assiduous as to what I do about complying with my ethical obligations,” Wehrum said. “Because it doesn’t do me any good, and it doesn’t do the agency any good, to be doing things that people see as unethical.”

Last week, House Energy and Commerce Chair Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) asked the EPA's inspector general to probe Wehrum's conduct.

A chemical engineer who led the EPA’s air and radiation office on an acting basis under President George W. Bush, Wehrum joined Hunton as a partner in 2007 and, Eilperin reports, “spent the next decade representing utilities, petrochemical manufacturers and trade groups. In his last year at the firm, he reported income of $2.15 million. At the EPA, his salary is $164,200.”

When he joined the Trump administration in November 2017, Wehrum pledged to abide by ethics rules stating officials must recuse themselves for two years from decisions involving their former clients. All interested parties must be included in certain meetings, according to the rules — “a dictum that has been interpreted to mean four other participants who were not clients.”

That's why the December 2017 meeting has become problematic.

His former law firm is one of the “nation’s premier challengers of federal air and water pollution standards,” Eilperin reports. One of Wehrum's ex-clients was the Utility Air Regulatory Group, a coalition of coal-dependent power companies coal that is based at Hunton. 

Wehrum addressed the group on Dec. 7 at the invitation of a Hunton partner. To comply with ethics rules, Wehrum says, he asked to “include Duke Energy, another former client, and three other utilities — all among the Utility Air Regulatory Group’s most generous backers — so the event would comply with his interpretation of Trump’s ethics pledge.”

Wehrum told Eilperin he believes " 'his meetings comply' with ethics standards so long as five different entities participate. And, he said, it does not matter how many of those entities are former clients.”

And: “That same week, Wehrum participated in an agency decision that appeared to benefit his former law firm.”

More from Eilperin: 

On Dec. 7, 2017, Pruitt, then the EPA chief, signed a memo saying the agency would not be 'second guessing' companies’ projections about how much their expanded operations might increase pollution.

The memo’s timing was fortuitous for Hunton because it came on the eve of a critical Supreme Court hearing in a case against DTE Energy.

Hours before the justices conferred on whether to take up DTE Energy’s appeal, Hunton hand-delivered Pruitt’s memo to the Supreme Court. After the high court declined to take up the case, the matter entered settlement talks, and DTE’s hand has been strengthened.

Though Wehrum was prohibited by ethics rules from engaging in any matter regarding the DTE lawsuit, he acknowledges reviewing the Pruitt memo in advance and discussing it with EPA colleagues in a meeting on Dec. 5, 2017.

He said the EPA’s Office of General Counsel cleared him to hold the meeting to explain the intent of 2002 air rules he helped write during the George W. Bush administration — rules that were key to the DTE dispute.

The bottom line: When former lobbyists for industries join any administration, the potential for conflicts of interest is plentiful when it comes to their former clients and industries for which they once worked. Despite the Trump administration's ethics pledge, more than a few officials have raised eyebrows for the kind of activities in which Wehrum seems to have engaged.

POWER PLAYS

— The latest on the group the White House is readying to assess climate change: The White House plans to put together an ad hoc group including federal scientists to reexamine government climate analysis as well as conclusions that burning fossil fuel is harming the Earth, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin, Josh Dawsey and Brady Dennis report. The scientists involved in the panel include those “who question the severity of climate impacts and the extent to which humans contribute to the problem,” they write. My colleagues write the creation of such a group would be the Trump administration’s most aggressive effort to date to challenge the scientific consensus around global warming.

How plans have progressed: “The idea of a new working group, which top administration officials discussed Friday in the White House Situation Room, represents a modified version of an earlier plan to establish a federal advisory panel on climate and national security,” Eilperin, Dawsey and Dennis report. “That plan — championed by William Happer, NSC’s senior director and a physicist who has challenged the idea that carbon dioxide could damage the planet — would have created an independent federal advisory committee.”

— Grand jury probing Zinke: Prosecutors have started to present evidence to a grand jury in an investigation into whether the former Interior secretary lied to federal investigators about his move not to approve a Connecticut casino, The Post’s Eilperin and Lisa Rein report.

The bid from two Indian tribes, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, led to a lobbying campaign by MGM Resorts International, a competitor, and the tribes claim Zinke chose not to grant their application because of political pressure.

Last year, the Interior Department’s internal watchdog opened an investigation into the matter, and later referred the issue to the Justice Department when the office came to believe Zinke had lied to investigators. “Witnesses before the grand jury have been asked whether anyone influenced Zinke’s decision to rebuff the tribes’ casino petition, according to the two individuals familiar with the proceedings,” Eilperin and Rein report. “Prosecutors have also asked witnesses — who include Interior officials — about what sort of advice they provided Zinke in the course of his review of the application.”

— Park Service considering relying more on seasonal staff: A new report from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility says Interior is planning to rely to a greater extent on National Park Services staffers, especially for security within parks, with less training as a way to lower costs. 

Seasonal law-enforcement staffers get accredited by private academies instead of being trained by the service, the Hill reports, adding they "frequently pay for the costs [of such training] out of their own pocket." The Park Service told the Hill it is “examining ways in which we can achieve the highest level of training for our law enforcement officers in the timeliest manner possible. No formal proposal has been made at this time.”

— 2020 watch: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), expected to soon declare his candidacy for president, is ready to test whether climate change can be a “singular springboard to the presidency,” The Post’s Dan Balz reports. And he’s teasing out how he’d focus on the topic. “Other Democratic candidates list climate change as one of their main issues. Inslee said he would go further,” Balz writes. “I would be the only one to say this is the primary, foremost, mission of the United States,” Inslee said at the National Governors Association winter meeting over the weekend. “The way I categorize it is that it has to become the organizing principle throughout the federal government.”

What he thinks is realistic: “The goal of a carbonless economy by 2030, outlined in some versions of the Green New Deal, seems unrealistic to Inslee,” Balz writes. “In that time, he said, the country can put into place ambitious measures to combat climate change, but the full results would be realized only later.”

— “That resolution will not pass the Senate”: Sen. Dianne Feinstein faced off against a group of kids visiting her office Friday calling on the California Democrat to push for the Green New Deal. During the exchange, seen in a video that went viral and drew a slew of reactions, Feinstein tells the group she doesn’t support the deal.

When the group of middle- and high school students in the San Francisco Bay area asked the six-term senator whether she plans to support the ambitious climate plan proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Feinstein told them she “doesn’t agree with what that resolution says” and there’s “no way to pay for it.”

This was one notable exchange:

“But we have come to a point where our Earth is dying, and it is literally a pricey and ambitious plan that is needed to deal with the magnitude of that issue,” a 16-year-old activist told Feinstein. “So we’re asking you to vote 'yes’ on the resolution for the Green New Deal because that is the only —”

Feinstein interrupted: “That resolution will not pass the Senate, and you can take that back to whoever sent you here . . . The key to good legislation is to tailor something you write so that it can pass and you can get a step ahead. I’ve been in the Senate for a quarter of a century, and I know what can pass and I know what can’t pass.”

When the same activist told Feinstein that “we’re the people who voted you [in],” Feinstein told the 16-year-old: “You didn’t vote for me.”

After the meeting, Feinstein issued a statement, saying she heard the group “loud and clear,” and teasing her own climate resolution she intends to release soon.

Some more context: The environmental activist group Sunrise Movement, which organized the group's visit, posted a shortened version of the video of the kids' meeting on social media, as well as a longer, unedited version on its Facebook page. In the longer version, Feinstein says she might vote for the Green New Deal resolution anyway, despite her opposition. She also offers an internship opportunity in her office to the 16-year-old activist.

“The two videos have given rise to many interpretations of Feinstein’s interaction with the children. Some agreed with the Sunrise Movement’s claim that she was short and dismissive of the students,” The Post’s Michael Brice-Saddler writes. “Others found the negative reaction to her comments as unreasonable, especially after watching the full video.”

Via New York Magazine's Rebecca Traister:

From progressive strategist Eric Schmeltzer:

Sunrise Movement's Evan Weber: 

THERMOMETER

— Cracks growing across Antarctica's Brunt Ice Shelf: An iceberg about twice the size of New York City is about to break off from Antarctica’s Brunt Ice Shelf and NASA said it could “result in an uncertain future for the shelf’s scientific research & human presence.” In a post, NASA said it “may be the largest berg to break from the Brunt Ice Shelf since observations began in 1915. Scientists are watching to see if the loss will trigger the shelf to further change and possibly become unstable or break.”

— Solar panels are the latest crop: In Illinois, solar panels are popping up alongside traditional farmlands as hundreds of farmers apply to have solar panels on their property, Genevieve Bookwalter writes for The Post. The shift has in part been encouraged by a state law mandating a quarter of the state’s power come from renewable resources by 2025. “The shift is controversial, and not just because of how it could alter the pastoral landscape,” Bookwalter writes. “Taking some of the most fertile soil in the world out of production could have serious consequences for a booming population … Climate change is also spurring some farmers to rent acreage for solar panels, as a way to help combat global warming.”

OIL CHECK

— Oil giant reportedly trying to block climate resolution: ExxonMobil sent a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission, calling on the regulator to block a proposal from investors to set goals for lower greenhouse gas emissions, Reuters reports. In the letter, the company suggested the proposal is misleading and an effort to “micro-manage the company,” spokespeople for the investors behind the proposal told Reuters. In a statement, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who manages the state’s pension fund backing the proposal, said Exxon is “is trying to deny shareholders’ right to vote on a significant climate risk concern.”

— Ford probing its emissions testing: Ford Motor Co. announced last week it would investigate its emissions-certification process, bringing in outside experts to examine its procedures. The company also said it has notified federal regulators about potential concerns, the Wall Street Journal reported. The EPA said it had been briefed by Ford and would work with the company on the investigation.

DAYBOOK

Coming Up

  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations holds a hearing on the EPA’s enforcement program on Tuesday.
  • The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on the future of ARPA-E on Tuesday.
  • House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies holds a hearing on climate research on Tuesday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife holds a hearing on water supply reliability on Tuesday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the state of U.S. territories on Tuesday.
  • The American Action Forum hosts a panel discussion on clean energy policy on Tuesday.
  • The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Environment holds a hearing on the impacts of climate change on oceans and coasts on Wednesday.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on clean energy infrastructure on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on the  Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies Act and carbon capture on Wednesday.
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosts the U.S. launch of the 2019 BP Energy Outlook on Wednesday. 
  • The EPA is scheduled to hold public hearings on the WOTUS rule on Wednesday and Thursday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on the IEA’s World Energy Outlook on Thursday.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change holds a hearing on the Paris climate agreement on Thursday.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— If you're a snow lover in the D.C. area, this has been your year: Washington's snowfall as of last week was 16.6 inches, more than an inch above the full-season average,  The Post's Ian Livingston reports