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EPA Chief: Climate Change Is Not Top Priority

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Win McNamee / Staff / Getty Images News

In an in-depth interview with Reuters Thursday, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Andrew Wheeler repeated claims that climate change is not the biggest environmental threat facing the world and shed some light on the agency's plans to help the Trump administration boost fossil fuel development.

The interview came a day after President Donald Trump signed two executive orders designed to speed up pipeline approvals and other fossil fuel projects. Wheeler told Reuters that the EPA was working on proposals to speed state approvals, focusing on clarifying section 401 of the Clean Water Act that lets states block projects, Reuters reported.


Wheeler singled out Washington State, which has blocked coal terminals in recent years.

"I don't think section 401 was originally intended for states to make international environmental policy, I'm not just talking about U.S. policy. They're trying to dictate to the world how much coal is used," he said.

He also questioned the judgement of New York, which has used section 401 to stop a natural gas pipeline to New England.

"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, and they are forcing the New England states to use Russian-produced natural gas which is not as clean as U.S. natural gas. I think it's very short-sighted," he said.

Wheeler did not give an exact time table for when the proposals would be ready.

When asked about climate change itself — the primary motive behind states' opposition to fossil fuel infrastructure — Wheeler said he accepted the science, but didn't think it was the biggest environmental priority.

"I said before I took this job that I believe in climate change and man has an impact on climate change. But I believe the number one issue facing our planet today is water," he said.

However, the EPA's record on clean water under Wheeler's watch is contested, as the Center for American Progress (CAP) pointed out in response to an earlier interview in which Wheeler had made a similar claim.

CAP highlighted five policies that called Wheeler's commitment to clean water into question.

  1. The administration's 2020 budget would fund EPA clean water programs at 61 percent of current levels.
  2. Wheeler is continuing a rollback of the Obama-era Waters of the U.S. rule that would cut protection for 51 percent of wetlands and 18 percent of rivers and streams.
  3. Wheeler's first act as acting administrator was to sign a rule loosening regulations on ground-water contaminating coal ash.
  4. Under his watch, the EPA delayed producing a plan to deal with the presence of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS in drinking water.
  5. Climate change will cause many water-related issues like flooding and drought, and by downplaying the threat it poses, Wheeler also downplays those concerns.

"In reality, Wheeler's countless actions show that the former coal lobbyist has actively dirtied our water," CAP Research Analyst for the Energy and Environment War Room Sally Hardin wrote.

Wheeler addressed some of these issues in the interview. When asked about the relationship between climate and water, Wheeler acknowledged there was a connection, but said that many water issues pre-dated climate.

"We've had problems on water infrastructure, on waste in the oceans, and in drinking water for a hundred years," he said.

He also said he was surprised by the backlash to the action plan on PFAS that his agency did release in early 2019, which was criticized in part for delaying a new safety standard for the chemicals until it drafted a regulation by the end of 2019. Wheeler said the action plan began that process.

"That was a career staff document and remains the most comprehensive action plan this agency has ever developed for an emerging chemical concern," he said.

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