with Paulina Firozi


Jeff Alson was sitting in his apartment in Ann Arbor, Mich., when he felt like he was going to explode. 

The retired environmental engineer, who worked at the Environmental Protection Agency for 40 years, had just read a letter written by one of his old bosses, agency chief Andrew Wheeler. 

In it, Wheeler told Congress that EPA career experts had not been cut out of the process of crafting one of the Trump administration's most controversial environmental proposals to date — one that would abandon one of President Barack Obama's signature climate policies.

Alson was one of those EPA experts before retiring in April 2018. He was fuming, he later said, because he believed what Wheeler was saying was wrong.

“I gave myself five minutes,” the 63-year-old retiree said in an interview Friday. “I sat there and tried to calm down. But I said, 'You know what? Enough is enough.' "

Alson is speaking out at a moment of rising tension between Trump officials and California regulators as the federal government prepares to freeze in place pollution rules for new cars and light trucks for the next six years — rather than ratchet them up to rein in carbon emissions as the Obama administration wanted to do.

Wheeler and Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, spent Thursday trading barbs after failed negotiations to allow California to keep its waiver allowing the state to set its own rules under the Clean Air Act, a practice the federal government has sanctioned for decades.

In prepared testimony, Nichols told lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee that in more than a dozen meetings with federal officials, “the Trump Administration has been unwilling to find a way” toward a resolution between with California.

She also said that “U.S. EPA’s professional staff and California’s engineers were cut out of this proposal’s development.” 

Responding in his own letter to lawmakers, Wheeler said Nichols never offered a counterproposal and accused Nichols of not being “a good faith actor in this rulemaking.” He added that "[h]er testimony that EPA professional staff were cut out of this proposal's development is false.”

It was that last statement that got Alson's blood boiling.

“I can speak from direct experience that Mary Nichols is telling the truth and Administrator Wheeler is lying,” he said.

According to Alson, under previous administrations technical staff at the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the Transportation Department, would spend hours ironing out details of how fuel-efficiency standards should work before the agencies jointly rolled out the tailpipe rules for new cars.

But Alson said before the Trump administration's proposal was rolled out, there were no such technical meetings between the technical staffs of NHTSA and the National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory, the EPA's state-of-the-art facility in Michigan where investigators helped uncover the Volkswagen emissions scandal and where Alson worked for decades. 

Instead, he said, there were only a few what he calls “check-the-box" meetings between the agencies in early 2018. 

“NHTSA was unwilling to tell EPA what they were doing,” Alson said. “At the end of the day, they completely controlled every piece of analysis.”

During a joint hearing of two House Energy and Commerce subcommittees Thursday, Democrats grilled the EPA’s air policy chief, Bill Wehrum, about his office's involvement in the proposal. 

“Was it accurate that they had little involvement in the process?” said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), referring to the Office of Air and Radiation.

“Through the course of this rulemaking, EPA has had a substantial amount of involvement,” Wehrum responded.

EPA spokesman Michael Abboud reiterated the points made in Wheeler's letter. “The letter speaks for itself,” Abboud said. “Career, professional staff within the Office of Air and Radiation were involved in the development of the proposal and continue to be involved in the final stages as we work with NHTSA to finalize this rule.”

But documents released in the rulemaking process last year show bitter disagreement between the two agencies over the logic of the move.

The Transportation Department agency said that upping car mileage per gallon make new cars more expensive and lead to consumers putting off purchases. That, in turn, would mean more older cars on the road that would not perform well in accidents and more auto fatalities.

An internal EPA analysis at the time, however, found that not going through with the Obama-era rules would lead to slightly more fatalities. At one point, the disagreement became so pronounced that an EPA staffer asked for the agency's name and logo to be removed from a key regulatory report.

California and other states have vowed to challenge the freezing of the fuel-efficiency standards in court once they are finalized. If the EPA's technical staff were cut out of the process, as Alson contends, that may provide fodder for a lawsuit.

“The Clean Air Act requires EPA to be 'the decider' for its own rules, so IF it could be clearly shown in the record that EPA relinquished decision-making authority to NHTSA, that could be a problem for EPA in the courts,” Jody Freeman, director of Harvard Law School's Environmental and Energy Law Program, wrote by email.

Alson said he is going public now because most of his former colleagues still work at the agency and can't “set the record straight” without fear of reprimand.

“I felt a responsibility to do that because I'm the only person who could stand up and do that,” he said. “Everybody else who still works there can't say that.”


— Jay Inslee releases another climate plan: This latest one from the Washington governor and climate-focused candidate for president aims to end subsidies for fossil-fuel production, ban new federal fossil-fuel leasing, restrict drilling and mining under existing leases and create a new office in the Justice Department to prosecute polluters. The plan, released Monday morning, earned early praise from environmentalists. "I'm really heartened by Jay Inslee's commitment to tell hard truths to fossil fuel industries, and in offering a truly comprehensive climate plan for American voters," said RL Miller, founder of Climate Hawks Vote.

— White House unveils draft guidance on how agencies must account for climate change: The White House Council on Environmental Quality issued draft guidance Friday telling federal agencies they no longer have to take long-term climate impacts into account when reviewing how projects affect the environment.. The proposal means agencies “no longer have to take a project’s long-term climate impacts into account when assessing how they will affect the environment,” The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports. The guidance reverses an April 2016 directive that agencies must quantify their long-term contribution to climate change.

But: Legal experts warn the new guidance: "could cause further problems for the administration in court, where judges have suggested officials need to do a better job of assessing the climate impact of their decisions," Eilperin writes.

— Standoff continues in Oregon: After Republican senators walked out of the state capitol last week to avoid a vote on a climate change bill, the GOP members were absent again on Sunday.

One Republican state senator, Cliff Bentz, told the Oregonian in a phone interview from somewhere in Idaho that he’s glad there is increased attention around “one of the biggest issues of our time,” meaning climate change, and the party’s concern with the Democratic-backed cap-and-trade bill. The Post’s Reis Thebault and Michael Brice-Saddler reported Friday the state capitol was shut down because of credible threats from militia groups. “Friday night’s menacing escalation was the latest in a bizarre feud between the state’s Democrats and Republicans, who have clashed repeatedly during this year’s legislative session,” they write.

Why this is happening now: “Democrats have a supermajority in Oregon, allowing them the rare opportunity to pass the legislation of their dreams — but without Republicans, they can’t achieve a quorum,” Thebault and Brice-Saddler report. “No quorum, no vote. GOP senators said they had two options: allow a bill that they said would devastate their constituents to pass, or make a run for it.”

— Court strikes down federal approval for Cadiz pipeline: A federal judge has thrown out approval that the Bureau of Land Management under President Trump granted to Cadiz Inc. to build a water pipeline across public land in California. The agency under Trump reversed a 2015 decision by the Obama administration to say Cadiz could not use the existing railroad right of way across federal land, the Los Angeles Times reports.

— Climate-related studies blocked: The Trump administration has blocked the release of dozens of government-funded studies that warn about various climate-related dangers — all peer-reviewed and cleared by scientists at the non-partisan Agriculture Research Service, Politico reports

A spokesperson for the Agriculture Department said there have been no such orders within the agency to stop the promotion of climate science. “The studies range from a groundbreaking discovery that rice loses vitamins in a carbon-rich environment … to a finding that climate change could exacerbate allergy seasons to a warning to farmers about the reduction in quality of grasses important for raising cattle,” per the report. “None of the studies were focused on the causes of global warming – an often politically charged issue. Rather, the research examined the wide-ranging effects of rising carbon dioxide, increasing temperatures and volatile weather.”

— Supreme Court sides with property owners: The high court sided in a 5-to-4 decision with a Pennsylvania woman in a case involving land-use regulations, overturning a precedent that required landowners to bring claims against local governments in state court before going to federal court. The ruling is “likely to have ripple effects on land use and environmental regulations,” E&E News reports. “[Chief Justice John Roberts] reasoned that landowners have a claim under the Fifth Amendment — which bars the government from taking property without compensation — as soon as the taking occurs and therefore have access to federal court right away.”


— A proposed wildfire fund in California: In an effort to assist utilities in the state and protect ratepayers from the rising costs associated with liability claims after catastrophic wildfires, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has proposed a new wildfire fund. The money for the $21 billion fund would be generated by $10.5 billion from extending an existing charge on utility customer bills, the Los Angeles Times reports, as well as $10.5 billion matched by investor-owned utilities. “The proposal stops short of meeting investor demands that the state change its doctrine of inverse condemnation, which holds utilities responsible for wildfire damage linked to their equipment,” per the report. “But Newsom’s advisors said they were confident that a fund coupled with a new safety certification process would stabilize the industry’s finances, ensure that wildfire victims can recoup losses and reduce fire risks.”

— What goes up must come down, as litter: According to the environmental nonprofit group Alliance for the Great Lakers, there were 18,000 balloons or balloon debris, including strings, found along the shorelines of the Great Lakes between 2016 and 2018, the Detroit Free Press reports. “Heightened understanding of problems associated with balloon litter has led five states to limit or ban intentional releases. At least eight others are considering restrictions,” per the report.


— Philadelphia refinery fire extinguished: The fire that erupted at a crude oil refinery in Philadelphia on Friday morning was extinguished over the weekend, as an investigation into the cause began. “Officials said the gas valve that had been fueling the blaze has been shut off and the tank involved in the explosion has been isolated,” the Associated Press reports. “Officials say the fire department’s hazmat unit and the public health department are still monitoring air quality. No threat to public health has been reported.”

— A bump in the road for the energy storage boom: Energy storage researchers and advocates are closely monitoring the ongoing investigation over an April fire and explosion of a massive battery in Phoenix. The incident underlined some of the concerns and risks associated with the burgeoning technology that will be key to the growth of renewable energy, the Associated Press reports. “Nearly all of the utility-scale batteries now on the grid or in development are massive versions of the same lithium ion technology that powers cellphones and laptops. If the batteries get too hot, a fire can start and trigger a phenomenon known as thermal runaway, in which the fire feeds on itself and is nearly impossible to stop until it consumes all the available fuel,” per the report. George Crabtree, director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, told the AP the probe is “getting attention, and I think everyone realizes that too many safety incidents . . . will be detrimental going forward.”


Coming Up

  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on the Land and Water Conservation Fund on Tuesday.
  • The House Science Committee holds a hearing on oversight of the Energy Department's research and development with Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Tuesday.
  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources holds a hearing on uranium mining on Tuesday.
  • The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment holds a hearing on protecting and restoring America's iconic waters on June 25. 
  • The House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on the Environment holds a hearing on natural disasters and climate change on Tuesday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power hold a legislative hearing on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hold a hearing on nuclear waste on Thursday.

— Watch a giant squid emerge from the darkness: It’s the first time a living giant squid has been captured on video in U.S. waters, The Post’s Kayla Epstein reports

A deep-sea exploration crew searching for giant squid in the Gulf of Mexico claims to have found one measuring up to 12 feet in length. (NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research via Storyful)