As Trump Dismantles Clean Air Rules, an Industry Lawyer Delivers for Ex-Clients
WASHINGTON — As a corporate lawyer, William L. Wehrum worked for the better part of a decade to weaken air pollution rules by fighting the Environmental Protection Agency in court on behalf of chemical manufacturers, refineries, oil drillers and coal-burning power plants.
Now, Mr. Wehrum is about to deliver one of the biggest victories yet for his industry clients — this time from inside the Trump administration as the government’s top air pollution official.
On Tuesday, President Trump is expected to propose a vast rollback of regulations on emissions from coal plants, including many owned by members of a coal-burning trade association that had retained Mr. Wehrum and his firm as recently as last year to push for the changes.
The proposal strikes at the heart of climate-change regulations adopted by the Obama administration to force change among polluting industries, and follows the relaxation of separate rules governing when power plants must upgrade air pollution equipment. Mr. Wehrum, who has led the E.P.A.’s clean air office since November, also helped deliver the changes in several of those rules.
The rollbacks are part of the administration’s effort to bring regulatory relief to the coal industry, and other major sources of air pollution. But to proponents of a tougher stance on industries that contribute to global warming, Mr. Wehrum is regarded as the single biggest threat inside the E.P.A., with Tuesday’s expected announcement to weaken what is known as the Clean Power Plan the most recent evidence of his handiwork.
“They basically found the most aggressive and knowledgeable fox and said, ‘Here are the keys to the henhouse,’” said Bruce Buckheit, an air pollution expert who worked for the Justice Department’s Environmental Enforcement Section and as director of the E.P.A.’s air enforcement office under Democratic and Republican presidents.
Mr. Wehrum has been able to push his deregulatory agenda without running into ethics troubles because of a quirk in federal ethics rules. The rules limit the activities of officials who join the government from industry — but they are less restrictive for lawyers than for officials who had worked as registered lobbyists.
The end result is that the ethics rules generally allow Mr. Wehrum to help oversee the drafting of policies that broadly benefit the industries or clients he represented in recent years.
“It is a failing in the rule,” said Norman Eisen, a former Obama administration lawyer who wrote the White House ethics code that creates the division between how ex-lawyers and ex-lobbyists are treated. “One is subject to the tougher lobbying restriction, and the other skates through.”