U.S. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler defends water, air regulation changes

Andrew Wheeler
Wheeler lauded President Donald Trump policies while castigating former President Barack Obama's.

President Barack Obama was obsessed with addressing climate change to the detriment of other environmental protections while President Donald Trump‘s administration is focused more on practical, local protections, U.S. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said Monday.

In an interview with Florida Politics, Wheeler, who has been administrator or acting administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency since July 2018, contended that many of the environmental gains claimed by the Obama administration did not or could not ever materialize because they were either impossible or essentially illegal.

Wheeler gave the interview the day after Trump came to Jupiter to announce a 10-year extension to the federal ban on off-shore drilling along Florida’s shoreline. The EPA has little to do with offshore drilling. Still, Trump’s speech was in large part an appeal to environmentally concerned Floridians.

Democrats and environmentalists have characterized Trump’s strategies as rollbacks on protections Obama sought. Those include regulations that aimed at providing far more protection to wetlands, which cover much of Florida; and reducing carbon emissions linked to climate change, which many scientists blame for increasing the intensity of the hurricane season and other extreme weather in Florida and elsewhere.

Wheeler contended the Trump administration has been seeking more practicable solutions. He charged that Obama’s regulations went too far in defining wetlands, were unrealistic in addressing auto emissions or methane emissions — both linked to climate change — and were illegal in dealing with power plant emissions, also linked to climate change.

At the same time, he charged that such Obama-era rule-making left the EPA falling behind in dealing with everything from Superfund site cleanups to addressing the lead and copper plumbing issues that threaten public health, as in the widely reported case in Flint, Michigan.

“The Obama administration, I believe for the most part, outside their [Waters of the United States] rule, was singleminded in everything that had to do with climate change. That was a priority for President Obama. That was a priority for Gina McCarthy, his EPA administrator, to the point where they were stretching laws, outright breaking them I believe in some instances, [and] at the expense of the everyday pollution that people face in their communities,” McCarthy said.

“What I want to focus the agency on, and we’ve been moving toward this in the past year or two, is breaking down the silos between our regulatory programs and focusing more on the community level, so we can decrease the pollution people face in their communities,” Wheeler said. “That’s why, for example, we worked very hard with the state of Florida to get the state in compliance with all the ambient air quality standards [ozone, particulate matter, lead, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide.] And we removed the last two non-attainment areas in Florida earlier this year. So for the first time in many years Florida, the entire state, is in attainment for the national ambient air qualities.”

Yet this comes as the Trump administration has received harsh criticism for widespread changes in environmental protection regulations critics say is favoring polluters over the environment.

Citing research from Harvard Law School, Columbia Law School and other sources, The New York Times recently reported the Trump administration has taken steps to roll back 100 environmental policies pursued by the Obama administration. They range from withdrawal from the Paris climate accord to ending a moratorium on new mining permits on public lands. More than half of the changes, though not all, are administered by the EPA.

Wheeler was asked about a small handful of regulatory changes having to do with water protection, a critical issue from the Everglades to the rivers and wetlands, to the ocean estuaries and lagoons, to springs; and emissions of fossil fuels such as coal and methane, which pose long-term risks to Florida through rising sea levels and increasingly chaotic weather associated with climate change.

With regard to wetlands protection, the Trump administration rescinded an Obama rule that had greatly expanded the definition of waters protected by regulations in the Clean Water Act. Wheeler said there never has been a clear definition of federal navigable waters covered under that law and the Obama administration sought to expand it under the guise of clarification.

“I really think they went too far and the courts apparently agreed because a federal stay was issued to stop enforcement,” he said.

The Trump plan made the stay moot by abandoning the Obama plan for one that Wheeler contends still protects as much water as possible without going beyond the definitions in statutes. Yet, a lot of wetlands and small streams may have lost potential protections. No one ever tried to map protected areas so there is no clear certainty on what is now out that might have been in under Obama, he said. Wheeler said those protected waterways now are being mapped by the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers.

Wheeler said he does not think the change would impact Florida much because so much of the state’s wetlands are protected under other laws, including state law.

“Particularly for the state of Florida because we have so many other programs that regulate water, that protect water around the country. So just because it is not considered navigable water under the Clean Water Act, doesn’t mean we don’t have it under other programs,” he said, citing Everglades protections as one example.

He also defended the agency’s  approach to regulate nutrient discharge such as nitrates that foul springs, rivers, lakes and estuaries, resulting in algae blooms, red tides, and fish kills.

Wheeler said the previous administration “had a more antagonistic approach to farmers. What we’re trying to do is work more cooperatively with them,” he said. “We’re working with them so they will use less fertilizer and there will be less runoff.”

Trump said Monday that America’s air has never been cleaner. During the Wheeler interview, the EPA offered numbers to back that up, though many of the cited improvements result from actions that require several years and even decades to produce results. The EPA says that from 2017-19 ozone emissions have gone down 4%, nitrogen dioxide by 4%, large particulate matter by 22%, small particulate matter by 12% and suffer dioxide by 10%. Carbon dioxide emissions have fallen by 12% from 2005 to 2018, and methane emissions by 24% since 1990.

However, the Trump administration has caught strong criticism for postponing requirements for increased fuel efficiency and reductions in pollutants from automobiles in the Obama Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards; and for tossing an Obama-era Clean Power Plan that would have accelerated air pollution standard for coal plants.

Wheeler said car companies were unable to comply with the CAFE standards, and the Clean Power Plan was stopped in a court challenge.

“The Supreme Court believed that the Clean Power Plan went beyond the Clean Air Act. … They tried to regulate outside the fence line. So there were never any reductions of CO2 from the big power plants. We saw that and said, ‘they didn’t follow the law, we need to follow the law, and we need to do something on climate change,'” Wheeler said. “So we did the “Affordable Clean Energy” rule, which stays within the fence line and will reduce CO2 emissions.”

Wheeler said the Trump standards for car fuel efficiency and energy are leading to similar improvements over time from what Obama sought.

“Only three companies out of the dozen or so automobile manufacturers, one of the three was Tesla, were able to meet the Obama standards on 2017, which is much less than they would have to do by 2025, without having to turn in credits or pay penalty fees. And the penalty fees, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. “So on paper the Obama CAFE standards sounded great, but if the companies are paying fees because they can’t meet them, those fees are passed on to the consumers.”

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].


  • James Robert Miles

    September 9, 2020 at 5:59 pm

    Under Trump the EPA is dead. So called conservatives don’t believe in conserving ANYTHING!!

  • Nick Whitehead

    September 9, 2020 at 10:21 pm

    OMG, please stop giving these criminals a microphone. Everything they say is a lie and these lies are meant to distract us while they steal the wealth of an entire generation and destroy the United States of America. Also, you falsely attributed the seventh paragraph to Gina McCarthy. I believe it should have been attributed to the crook Andrew Wheeler.

    • Ocean Joe

      September 9, 2020 at 10:54 pm

      Why not put a former coal lobbyist in charge of the EPA?

Comments are closed.


Florida Politics is a statewide, new media platform covering campaigns, elections, government, policy, and lobbying in Florida. This platform and all of its content are owned by Extensive Enterprises Media.

Publisher: Peter Schorsch @PeterSchorschFL

Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Drew Dixon, Roseanne Dunkelberger, A.G. Gancarski, Anne Geggis, Ryan Nicol, Jacob Ogles, Cole Pepper, Gray Rohrer, Jesse Scheckner, Christine Sexton, Drew Wilson, and Mike Wright.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @PeterSchorschFL
Phone: (727) 642-3162
Address: 204 37th Avenue North #182
St. Petersburg, Florida 33704