WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's pick to head the EPA's air office is an experienced environmental lawyer who opposed calls to regulate carbon as a pollutant while formerly at the EPA and would have direct responsibility over a greenhouse-gas emissions program for automobiles if confirmed by the Senate.
Environmental groups and Senate Democrats are fighting William Wehrum's nomination to be assistant administrator of Air and Radiation, saying he undermined clean-air rules throughout his career and has represented big polluters in the coal, oil, gas and utility industries. Some automakers have been clients.
Supporters say Wehrum (WAY'-ruhm) brings vast knowledge to the job and can be expected to fairly implement policy based on the law and facts. Environmentalists and industry officials credit Wehrum with successfully working to reduce diesel emissions.
"From my perspective, I found him to be a good listener, somebody who had an appreciation of the technical analysis and details," Margo Oge told Automotive News. Oge headed the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality and worked under Wehrum when he was acting head of the air pollution office in the George W. Bush administration. "When I looked for his support on issues where industry was fighting my office, he defended the work my office was doing based on scientific and technical data we provided."
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a confirmation hearing Wednesday, Oct. 4, but no vote on whether to advance Wehrum's nomination to the full Senate had been scheduled as of Friday afternoon.
Wehrum is a partner at law firm Hunton & Williams, where he helps clients deal with air-quality regulation, legislation, compliance and enforcement defense. According to the firm's website, he has represented companies and trade associations on matters involving the EPA's diesel engine standards and fuel regulations.
Wehrum, a chemical engineer by training, served as acting head of the EPA's air office for two years and as chief counselor to his predecessor for four. In April 2007, Bush withdrew Wehrum's nomination to become the permanent assistant administrator for the air program after Democrats, who controlled the Senate, made clear they would reject him over his record on clean-air rules.
At the hearing, Wehrum said he tried to strike a balance among human health, the environment and economic growth by making it easier to implement rules. He revealed his philosophical approach to regulation in a National Law Journal miniprofile last year.
"Environmental law has become more incremental than in its formative years," he told the journal. "We are no longer in the mode of setting standards for pollutants that make substantial changes and benefits. That's a sign of success. With well-established environmental programs, there are no more burning rivers.
"We're working around the edges. That emphasizes the importance of bringing elements of common sense. Regulation is not an end on its own. We don't waste time addressing issues as we do now where there is not significant risk to health. A lot of time can be invested in making incremental change that doesn't make much difference."
Oge: Wehrum was “somebody who had an appreciation of the technical analysis.”
Environmentalists accuse Wehrum of discounting the health impacts of air pollution, ignoring scientific findings, distorting scientific analysis on toxic mercury emissions and substituting industry positions for the clear intent of Congress, noting that courts repeatedly blocked EPA actions for violating clean-air laws.
Wehrum "was largely responsible for the Bush EPA's record of violating the Clean Air Act more often, and allowing more illegal emissions of harmful air pollution, than any EPA administration before or since," John Walke, director of the National Resources Defense Council's climate and clean air program, said in a .
Wehrum's office at the EPA disputed the Clean Air Act's characterization of carbon as an air pollutant that should be regulated like sulfur dioxide or nitrogen dioxide. However, the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA has the authority and responsibility to regulate it. The decision led the Obama administration in 2009 to begin developing stricter fuel economy and emissions standards for cars, light-duty trucks and even heavy-duty trucks.
Wehrum has advocated shifting more authority to states for addressing air pollution. But he has opposed granting California the power to enact stricter regulations than the federal government on greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles because he didn't think the state was suffering uniquely from global warming. He also said that National Highway Traffic Safety Administration authority to regulate fuel economy pre-empts states from taking action.
Oge said Wehrum proved to be an ally when her office was regulating emissions from lawn mowers by requiring catalytic converters for the first time. Industry leader Briggs & Stratton tried to stop the regulation, arguing the technology would cause engines to catch fire.
Wehrum supported the regulation after EPA researchers demonstrated that there was no fire risk, Oge said.
"My hope is, if he gets confirmed, he would show the same scientific integrity he demonstrated as acting assistant administrator" in the face of industry pressure "when looking at the 10,000 pages of data the EPA has for the 2025 emissions standards," Oge said.