William Wehrum is the Trump administration’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air and Radiation. “Bill,” the first line of his bio at his law firm, Hunton & Williams, boasts, “is well known for his thorough grasp of environmental issues.”
In his Senate confirmation hearing this week, Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., put that claim to the test.
The senator produced a large graph for Wehrum from NASA, tracking levels of both greenhouse gas emissions and warming from 1880 through 2005. The lines follow one another fairly closely, including a dramatic upward spike through the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st. “Can you acknowledge,” Merkley asked, “that these lines generally track each other?”
“I’m not familiar with those data. I have no idea what it depicts,” Wehrum answers.
Merkley prods. “But you can see the lines. Do the lines track each other?”
“What’s important, senator, is to know how the data is depicted.”
“Yes it is,” Merkley agrees, “But I’m just asking a question: Can you see those two lines, and do they generally track each other?”
Wehrum does not answer the question, leading Merkley to give up on his graph-related line of inquiry for another. “What we see is this Koch Brother-inspired determination not to acknowledge even the most fundamental facts. … Why should the American people put into an office of significant influence someone who refuses to look at the facts directly that are so important to the health of this planet?”
“As I said, these are complex issues and very important issues.”
So Merkley sought to make it a little less complex, asking Wehrum whether he acknowledges a series of basic scientific facts about recent ecological trends tied to rising temperatures: the increasing acidification of the ocean, growing snowpacks on the cascade mountains, longer fire seasons. Wehrum, again, does not respond, saying of ocean acidification that he’s aware there “is an allegation,” before being cut off.
As Merkley suggests, Wehrum is in all likelihood not as stupid as his testimony would lead you to believe. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it,” Upton Sinclair famously wrote. Wehrum has represented a number of fossil fuel industry interests, from the American Petroleum Institute, Kinder Morgan, the American Forest & Paper Association, and electric utilities in suing the EPA in fighting a number of regulations, some of which his new job would give him the authority to dismantle.
Among his other cases was one in which he represented industry trade associations in fighting Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules that limited how much silica workers can be exposed to on the job, and another challenging Mine Safety and Health Administration regulations. He also worked over a decade ago to try to block California from implementing more stringent vehicle standards. At another point in his confirmation hearing, Wehrum demurred when asked by California Sen. Kamala Harris if he’d pledge not to try to undo the state’s more stringent air quality regulations.
Notably, Wehrum is a major critic of the endangerment finding, a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that gives the EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Peeling back that authority is seen as a prize for many industry groups Wehrum has represented, that have reportedly been miffed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt hasn’t moved faster to dismantle it.
Having been at the EPA during the Bush years in the same job, Wehrum might be even better-positioned than Pruitt to take the endangerment finding head on, all with the backing of agency opponents and outsiders now running one of the nation’s top regulators. He’s expected, as well, to act as a kind of bridge between career administrators and Pruitt’s team, helping smooth the path for his boss’s anti-regulatory agenda.
But he has to get confirmed first.
“No one can look at what is happening on the planet and see that there is nothing happening unless you’re deliberately determined to ignore that information,” Merkley concluded Wednesday. “And that makes you, really quite frankly, unacceptable to serve in this capacity.”