U.S. EPA chief defends big energy projects, says climate not top priority

(Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will unveil a proposal to speed state-level permitting decisions for energy infrastructure projects soon, the agency’s chief told Reuters on Thursday, blasting states that have blocked coal terminals and gas pipelines on environmental grounds.

U.S. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is pictured EPA headquarters in Washington, DC, U.S. April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Timothy Gardner

President Donald Trump is seeking to boost domestic fossil fuels production over the objections of Democrats and environmentalists concerned about pollution and climate change. On Wednesday he issued a pair of executive orders targeting the power of states to delay energy projects.

“We started working on it in advance, so we hope to have something out soon,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in an interview. He was unable to provide a precise timeline.

Based on Trump’s orders, Wheeler’s EPA has been tasked with clarifying a section of the U.S. Clean Water Act that has allowed states like New York and Washington to delay projects in recent years.

New York has used the section to delay pipelines that would bring natural gas to New England, for example, and Washington state has stopped coal export terminals that would open the Asian market for struggling coal companies in Wyoming and other landlocked western states.

“They are trying to make international environmental policy,” Wheeler said of Washington state, whose governor, Democrat Jay Inslee, is running for president on a climate change-focused platform. “They’re trying to dictate to the world how much coal is used.”

Wheeler said New York, which amid strong public pressure denied a clean water act permit for construction of a natural gas pipeline to New England, is forcing that region “to use Russian-produced natural gas.”

“We are importing Russian natural gas which is not produced in an environmentally conscious manner. If the states that are blocking the pipelines were truly concerned about the environment, they would look to where the natural gas would be coming from... I think it’s very short-sighted,” he said.

Wheeler said the EPA would not prevent a state from vetoing a project, but would clarify the parameters they should be able to consider, and the length of time they have to do so.

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He also said that California is playing politics in its fight with the EPA to preserve its more stringent vehicle emission standards as the national standard.


Wheeler said he believes climate change is a problem, but that it had been overblown by former President Barack Obama’s administration - at the expense of other bigger issues like water quality.

“Yes, climate is an issue and we are working to address it, but I think water is a bigger issue,” he said.

Wheeler dismissed the findings of a report released earlier this week by EPA scientists in the journal Nature Climate Change that detailed the scale and urgency of climate change.

He said while he encouraged EPA scientists to carry out and publish research, he stressed the recent paper “did not reflect EPA policy.”

Environmental groups say the EPA’s replacement of an Obama-era rule limiting carbon emissions from power plants would likely lead to increased emissions by allowing older, more polluting coal plants to operate longer.

Asked whether the replacement - the Affordable Clean Energy rule, which gives states responsibility for regulating emissions - is stringent enough, Wheeler said it adheres to the parameters of federal law.

“I think what is effective regulation is one that follows the law and one that will be held up in court,” he said.

Several Democrats challenging Trump in the 2020 election have made climate change a top-tier issue, embracing aggressive policy platforms like the Green New Deal calling for an end of fossil fuels use.

Asked whether he was concerned that the EPA may be out of synch with polls showing an overwhelming number of young people believe climate change should be a priority issue, Wheeler was dismissive.

“I do fear that because so many people only talked about climate change. You’re right, there could very well be a new generation coming up saying that’s the only environmental issue - and it’s not,” he said.

Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and David Shepardson; Editing by Dan Grebler