White House pulls nomination to top EPA air post

WASHINGTON Wed Apr 11, 2007 6:05pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Wednesday withdrew its choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency's air pollution office after he ran afoul of key U.S. lawmakers.

William Wehrum, nominated to head the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, was the architect of rules to regulate harmful power plant emissions that environmental groups and many Democrats blasted as too lenient.

The White House withdrew Wehrum's nomination, along with that of Alex Beehler, its pick to be the EPA's Inspector General, in a routine personnel announcement.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, had placed a hold on both nominations last year after the panel approved it in party line votes. At the time, the Senate was under Republican control.

A hold prevents the full Senate from voting on nominees, effectively putting them in limbo.

Boxer, a California Democrat, had called Wehrum an "extremely troubling" nominee, whose record "demonstrates a pattern of discounting health impacts, ignoring scientific findings and substituting industry positions for the clear intent of Congress."

Wehrum would have replaced Jeffrey Holmstead, who left the agency in 2005 to work for Bracewell and Giuliani LLP, a Washington lobbying group whose clients include many big U.S utilities and refiners. A former lawyer for chemical and utility companies, Wehrum was a senior attorney in EPA's air office.

An aide to Sen. James Inhofe, the panel's top-ranking Republican, declined to comment. Inhofe had criticized Boxer's hold as "obstructionist" and called the nominees "highly qualified."

In a statement, the EPA said it "appreciates Bill Wehrum's service and benefits considerably from his policy expertise in environmental issues."

The EPA listed a string of programs developed under Wehrum, including the Clean Air Interstate Rule, which would reduce emissions of some power plant pollutants by 70 percent.

Boxer had agreed to hold a hearing on Wehrum's nomination this month to forestall a move by the White House to finalize his nomination in August after Congress leaves for recess -- a parliamentary maneuver that would have allowed the administration to temporarily skirt lawmaker objections.

Rather than face near-certain rejection from Boxer's committee, the White House withdrew the nominations.

Boxer said she also had concerns that Beehler had sought to weaken environmental standards at his previous job as a Defense Department official. Beehler had previously worked for privately held Koch Industries, an oil and chemical conglomerate.

"The air program under Wehrum has racked up a long line of court losses," said John Walke, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that had formally opposed the nominee.

Chief among those was a determination by the Supreme Court last week that the EPA erred in 2004 when it ruled that it lacked the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles.

Also, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia last year ruled that a key EPA proposal that would have allowed utilities to perform massive plant overhauls without installing emission-reduction equipment would violate the Clean Air Act.

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