Beaver County Times
By Jared Stonesifer
October 24, 2018
PITTSBURGH — The acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told a conference of oil and gas executives Wednesday morning that he is leading a “new EPA” that will focus on deregulation and a streamlined permitting process.
President Donald Trump in July appointed Andrew Wheeler as the acting administrator of the agency, and the president hinted earlier this week that Wheeler soon could become the permanent director.
Wheeler, 53, began his professional career with the EPA in the early 1990s but later became a lobbyist for the coal industry. On Wednesday, he came to Pittsburgh to deliver the opening keynote address of the Shale Insight Conference, an annual gathering of industry insiders from Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.
During his speech in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Wheeler reassured those in attendance that they have a “new champion” in the White House in the form of Trump.
To that end, he hammered home several priorities previously put forth by the president: deregulation, bringing back the coal industry and streamlining the permitting process.
Speaking about the beleaguered state of the coal industry, Wheeler told the oil and gas executives “if we walk away from coal in the United States, we would be walking away from developing new, clean-coal technologies.”
Those new technologies developed domestically are often exported and used around the world, Wheeler said, which means America has an obligation to continue to develop those technologies.
“If we stop innovation in one sector, we stop innovation worldwide, and that would be a detriment to the environment worldwide,” he said.
When it comes to the federal permitting process, Wheeler said until recently the agency wasn’t tracking how long it was taking to process permits. One of his top priorities is providing “greater certainty to the American public” by creating a new, efficient process that won’t stifle businesses.
“Our goal is to make all permit decisions, up or down, in six months,” he said.
Finally, Wheeler said the EPA in the past has made regulatory or enforcement decisions based purely on “hidden science.” That lack of transparency created mistrust in the agency from the American public, Wheeler said, which is why the agency going forward will only rely on science that is “publicly available.”
“Americans deserve to know the science that is guiding EPA decisions that impact their lives, especially when it is funded with taxpayer dollars,” he said.
Wheeler concluded his speech by saying the “new EPA” has a mission to “incentivize innovation, not stifle it with regulation.” He also said Trump’s policies are paying dividends for America’s economy and its thriving energy sector.
“As a nation we are making tremendous strides growing the economy and enhancing environmental protections,” he said. “We are producing more energy than ever before thanks to the hard work and ingenuity of the folks in this room today.”
The head of the EPA is just the latest in a series of high-profile speakers to attend the Shale Insight Conference. Trump, then a candidate for president, spoke at the conference in 2016, and former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer delivered the keynote address last year.
Other speakers in years past included Sean Hannity, Rudy Giuliani and Tom Corbett.
Not everybody was happy about the Shale Insight Conference or Wheeler’s presence in Pittsburgh.
To that end, a consortium of local and regional environmental advocates organized a “day of action” that included a protest outside the convention center during the conference, as well as a “native water ceremony” in Point State Park that included an appearance by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.
Wheeler’s appearance also drew the ire of environmental organizations across the state that railed against Trump’s weakening of EPA regulations, especially as it pertains to methane.
Pennsylvania is the second-largest producer of natural gas in the country, but also faces challenges regulating methane pollution associated with that production.
Dan Grossman, the national director of state programs for an organization called the Environmental Defense Fund, said Wednesday that he’s especially troubled by the weakening of methane regulations, especially because methane is allegedly causing about 25 percent of global warming seen today.
“EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler seems to forget that his agency’s job is to protect the environment, not do the bidding of the oil and gas industry,” Grossman said. “Rolling back methane standards is an affront to America’s families and communities dealing with the health and environmental impacts of oil and gas drilling and operations.”
Joseph Minott, the director of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, said Wednesday that Wheeler had “a lot of gall to come to Pennsylvania and tell us that regulatory rollbacks are good for us, especially when the majority of Pennsylvania residents actually want more action on climate change.”
He added that Wheeler’s message of promoting regulatory rollbacks “will not be welcome” in the state.
In addition, a statewide organization that advocates for clean energy issued a statement condemning “former coal industry lobbyist” Wheeler and his appearance at the conference.
Jacquelyn Bonomo, president of PennFuture, said her organization remains “deeply troubled by the directions and policies” of the EPA under Trump and Wheeler.
“As the EPA continues to cater to the wishes of the fossil fuel industry, it is showing virtually no regard for the long-term health and quality of life of the American people and the health of the environment it is charged to protect,” she said.
The Shale Insight conference will conclude Thursday afternoon in Pittsburgh.