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Trump Appointed Fossil Fuel Insiders to Federal Agencies. It’s Backfiring.

EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, is facing ethics complaints.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler testifies during a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing regarding President Donald Trump’s FY2020 budget for the Environmental Protection Agency, on April 2, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

President Trump enjoys broad support from conservative Christians because of his promises to attack reproductive rights and stack the courts in their favor, but thousands of anti-choice “evangelical environmentalists” lashed out at his administration this week. Their gripe? An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal to gut the regulatory analysis behind pollution standards that have drastically reduced mercury and other toxic emissions from coal-burning power plants. Mercury, after all, can harm fetuses and developing brains.

In a letter published in The Hill this week, the Evangelical Environmental Network became the latest group to speak out against an EPA proposal to heavily revise the cost-benefit analysis behind its Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, which have required coal plants to invest in pollution controls that reduced the amount of mercury they spew into the air by up to 90 percent over the past decade. Progressive environmental groups, lawmakers in both parties and even electric utilities also came out against the proposed rule-making during a public comment period that ended this week.

The unusual dissent from conservative evangelicals was the latest evidence that Trump’s plan to unleash fossil fuels production by stacking federal agencies with industry insiders and slashing regulatory oversight is backfiring. The president’s first picks to run the EPA and the Interior Department resigned in scandal, and their replacements are already mired in investigations and ethical concerns.

Earlier this week, ethics watchdogs requested an internal investigation of EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s involvement in the proposal to gut MATS, which are estimated to save $37 to $90 billion in public health costs each year by reducing thousands of asthma and heart attacks and cases of lung cancer. Wheeler was formerly a lobbyist hired by the Murray Energy coal mining company, which challenged the economic analysis behind the regulations and asked the Trump administration to throw them out as recently as 2017, according to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

“It is becoming more and more clear why coal and energy companies are happy to have their former lobbyist Andrew Wheeler in charge of the EPA,” said CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder, in a statement. “Administrator Wheeler’s apparent failure to abide by ethics obligations and to avoid the reality or appearance of conflicts continues to undermine the EPA’s integrity and weakens public confidence in our government.”

Amid a flurry of complaints from watchdog groups and Democratic lawmakers, internal investigators at the Interior Department opened and ethics probe into Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s alleged conflicts of interest just four days after his recent Senate confirmation. Bernhard previously worked as a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry, which operates on vast swaths of public lands and waters under the Interior Department’s watch. Both Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke, Trump’s former appointees to lead the EPA and Interior Department, respectively, resigned last year amid scandals and ethics investigations.

Everyone Loves MATS, Except Big Coal

While utilities initially opposed MATS, power plants nationwide have already invested billions of dollars in pollution control scrubbers built into the smokestacks of power plants in order to comply with the Obama-era regulations and the industry is worried about regulatory uncertainty should the agency reverse course, according to a recent letter to the EPA from utility companies.

In 2012, the EPA estimated that MATS would prevent 11,000 premature deaths and more than 100,000 asthma and heart attacks each year, because the scrubbers remove dangerous particulate matter and other pollutants from power plant emissions, along with mercury and other toxic substances officially targeted by the rules. This sparked a lengthy legal battle with the electric industry over the cost of the regulations, but the EPA eventually determined that the net public health benefit of the rules would save taxpayers $9 for every dollar the industry spent on pollution controls and declared that the rules were appropriate.

Power companies began investing billions of dollars in scrubbers and prepared to shut down aging plants that were old and dirty to update, all while coming under increasing public and market pressure to expand investment in alternatives to carbon-heavy coal. This alarmed coal mining companies serving power plants, particularly Murray Energy, which has spent $4.6 million dollars lobbying Congress over the past two decades.

The company filed a lawsuit against the EPA, arguing that the so-called “co-benefits” of reducing pollutants besides mercury and targeted air toxics should have been left out of the EPA’s cost-benefit analysis. Under the EPA’s revised “supplemental review” proposal for the MATS rules, billions of dollars in health savings resulting from reduction in particulate matter and other harmful emissions from power plant smokestacks would be ignored, making the estimated public have savings less than the estimated cost to industry.

Wheeler Worked for Murray Energy

Wheeler appears to have lobbied the Trump administration on the MATS regulations on behalf of Murray Energy as recently as March 2017, when he arranged and attended a meeting with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Murray Energy CEO Robert to discuss an “action plan” of policy items the company was pushing on Capitol Hill, according to CREW. Trump promised to champion the struggling coal industry on the campaign trail, and Murray Energy’s action plan was widely called a “wish list” in the media.

In a letter to the EPA Office of Inspector General this week, CREW said it appears that Wheeler violated a federal ethics pledge by working on MATS at the EPA within two years of lobbying on behalf of a private company on the issue. The group filed a similar request in January after Wheeler worked on coal ash regulations and reportedly met with former lobbying clients after becoming the interim administrator at the EPA.

“It is imperative that the EPA’s Inspector General investigate these apparent violations and work closely with the Office of Government Ethics to enforce the government’s ethics rules,” Bookbinder said.

In an email, an attorney for the EPA’s Inspector General said the office does not publicly confirm the existence of any investigation. A spokeswoman for Wheeler and the EPA did not respond to a request for comment on the ethics allegations before this story was posted.

Under the MATS proposal signed by Wheeler, the pollution standards for power plants would stay in place, but the cost-benefit analysis that included “co-benefits” from reducing pollutants besides mercury and other targeted toxics would be replaced with a new analysis showing that projected health savings are less than the cost to the industry. This would allow Wheeler to achieve a major goal for the coal industry and prevent the EPA from using “co-benefits” to justify pollution controls in the future, but environmental groups (including those on the right-wing) fear weakening the original cost-benefit would allow coal companies to have the rules thrown out in court.

The EPA is currently analyzing public comments and finalizing the proposal, and environmental groups are watching closely. With voices from across the political spectrum and even the industry opposing the change, the EPA’s final decision could say a lot about whether Wheeler is working for the coal industry or the public he has pledged to serve.

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