Protests and Petrol Power: Andrew Wheeler at the Cambridge Union

Zoe Maple 8 May 2019
Image Credit: Phillip Koehler, The Cambridge Union

“Sorry about this,” I am told for the fifth time as the Cambridge Union committee members lead me into the snooker room, where I’ll be interviewing Andrew Wheeler, Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and alleged global warming denier. “It’s all a bit annoying.”

Indeed, security measures have been extra-stringent today in preparation for Wheeler’s speech at the union, in which he plans to outline his upcoming plans for environmental policy. The main entrance has been closed off until Wheeler’s arrival. The guard staff is multiple times its usual size. Bags are searched and IDs checked as people enter the building. It’s the largest amount of security the Union has seen for two years.

And perhaps for good reason; within an hour, protesters will arrive outside the Union building – drumming, whistling and chanting – their racket causing a disturbance through the entire length of the event. Ten minutes into Wheeler’s speech, a small group within the audience will raise a banner emblazoned ‘Coal Kills’ – a criticism of Wheeler’s history of coal lobbying – and hold up ‘blood-stained’ hands until security removes them from the building. The audience will be forced to wait inside for several minutes after the event has finished until Wheeler has been safely escorted away and protesters finally stop blocking the exits.

But first, I get the chance to sit down with him (and half a dozen members of his press and security team, naturally) and ask him a few questions about his environmental policy. I begin by asking him to expand on his current stance that the most important environmental issues facing the world today are water-related problems.

“I’m not sure how I’m going to solve them,” he admits, “What I’ve been trying to do over the last few months is bring more attention to them. There are three separate issues there: there’s portable water – in underdeveloped countries in particular, such as in Africa – where you have one to three million people a year that die due to lack of portable water, or water-sanitation issues. I think that’s a crisis that doesn’t get enough attention.

“We also have water infrastructure worldwide that needs improvements, including in the US. Then we also have the marine waste – the marine plastic debris in particular,” he says by way of outlining the features of his policy.

“At EPA we have three pilot programmes in the Western hemisphere to try to help the marine plastics issue: in Panama, Peru and Jamaica. I’ve talked to my counterparts in the G7 last fall, and I’ll be talking to [them] this week at the G7, and then the G20 in Japan in June. And what I’m doing is saying to them, ‘We all have these pilot programmes, around the world, what we need to do is figure out a way of taking them from the pilot stage to the full implementation stage.’ Part of it is financing. The US cannot just step up and take care of all the drinking water for all the third-world countries around the world, but we do offer a lot on the technology side…and I think there’s some innovative financing that we might be able to help with, to try to invest in the problems.

“And then on the marine plastic debris in particular – 60% of the marine plastic debris comes from six Asian countries. So we know where the problems are,” Wheeler concludes, and it’s difficult not to suspect that he is pointing towards problems in other countries in order to distract from those of his own. “When you look at [marine plastic debris], the US is ranked 20th on the list. We’re doing some efforts with some international parties to try to help with the infrastructure in those countries – it’s a lack of infrastructure.”

Image Credit: Phillip Koehler, The Cambridge Union. The author (pictured front right) at the roundtable press conference.

On the topic of infrastructure, I address the matter of the executive orders issued by President Donald Trump last month, who has been accused of seeking to boost domestic fossil fuels production by limiting the power of states to delay energy projects. Does Wheeler think this move is necessary, I ask:

“Sure, and a perfect example – I just gave a speech yesterday morning in DC – on infrastructure permitting,” he replies, “And there’s a number of environmental benefits in getting these infrastructure projects permitted faster. I was in Miami, Florida a couple weeks ago and we gave them a loan for a new water treatment facility. Once that facility is up and running, it’s going to take a lot of the waste-water out of going to the Atlantic Ocean and it’s going to recycle the water.

“Yes, there’s criticism – and some of the groups in the US will point to a particular project that they don’t like, saying, ‘this one shouldn’t have been speeded up’ – but overall we need to speed up the permitting for all of them. It shouldn’t take four or five years to permit a facility; we should be able to get these facilities permitted much faster. Our goal is to approve or deny permits within six months at the EPA. But to be honest, at this point in time, we only do about five per cent of the environmental permits in the US – the majority of the permits are handled by the individual states, and that’s because over the last 30 or 40 years, we’ve delegated environmental programmes to the states…So we’re trying not just to speed up permitting decisions, and again it’s not approving the permits, but it’s giving certainty on how long the process should take.

“The example I give is when you’re a small or medium-size company, and you’re applying for a permit, you have to take a bank loan out. You have to start paying that loan off in one year, or two years, or even three years out…If your permit that you thought you were gonna get within 12 months ends up taking two years, that can be life or death for that business. So I really think that we owe it to people to make a decision – yes or no – in a certain amount of time.”

Last month, the EPA published a report which suggests that natural catastrophes are being – and will continue to be – exacerbated by climate change. In light of this, I ask Wheeler to what extent he views climate change as a matter of urgent concern.

“I think it’s a matter of concern,” he says, carefully omitting the notion of urgency, I notice, “And we are addressing it. As I mentioned, there are two regulations that we’re working on: one is our ACE (Affordable Clean Energy) rule for the electric power sector in the US and the other is our CAFE standards for automobiles. Our power plant regulation – and we just sent the final version over to the white house for review last week, so we hope to have that finalised sometime in the next month or so – will reduce coal fire power plant C02 emissions [by] 34%. So we are taking emissions reductions seriously. Of the G7 countries, we’ve reduced our emissions faster than any of the [others]. We’ve reduced our CO2 emissions [by] 14% since 2005. Over the last 10 years or so we have doubled our natural gas production, and at the same time we’ve reduced our methane emissions [by] 15%.

“So I do think it’s a matter that we have to address. We don’t necessarily have the best tools to address them as far as our laws are concerned. The Obama administration put forward a more stringent electorate power of regulation…and I’m often accused of rolling it back. I disagree with that completely because as soon as [the Obama administration regulation] was issued, the Supreme Court issued a stay and put it on hold because it went beyond the Clean Air Act. So what we’re trying to do is make sure that the EPA takes a look at what our law says, what the Clean Air Act says, what the Supreme Court cases say, and implement the laws that congress has given us.”

Image Credit: Phillip Koehler, The Cambridge Union. Questions to Mr Wheeler from the audience in the Chamber.

Off the back of this, I ask Wheeler his opinion on the importance of relying more heavily on renewable sources in the US to generate energy.

“Right now we [the US] are the second largest producer of renewable energy in the world, and we are the number one producer of both oil and natural gas. I am head of the Environmental Protection Agency and I don’t believe it is my role or our agency’s role to dictate [what the fuel sources are] for our country. Our role is to have a level playing field of regulations so that the people who do make those decisions – which would be our Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and our state Public Utility Commissions – they have traditionally set the regulatory mechanisms for dictating what types of power are used for different states. And some states use renewable coals – the state of California wants to be fossil fuel free by 2030 – or 2038, I forget – and that’s fine on a state by state basis, but I don’t think that’s the role of the EPA.

“The one thing about renewables – and I supported renewables when I was in private practice – I don’t know if you’ve read anything about me,” Wheeler says, demonstrating a knowledge of his reputation among many environmentalists, “Most of the articles written by people who don’t like me refer to me as a former coal lobbyist – I actually represented over 20 different companies. I represented a solar company, I represented nuclear industry… I believe in all forms of fuel and all forms of electricity.

“But every single form has a downside, and oftentimes when people look at the renewables they only look at the positive side of renewable energy. They don’t look at the negative aspects of, for example, all the copper mining that has to take place in order to provide the materials for the solar panels, and the large number of birds that are killed by wind turbines…So it’s our job as a regulatory agency to take the laws that congress gives us and implement those laws, and I believe we should do it in an even-handed manner that doesn’t tip the scale one way or the other, but provides regulatory certainty for the electricity sector.

“So yes, we do need to do more,” Wheeler concludes, “But I personally believe – and I’ve said this now for 20 years,” he says, bringing the conversation back around to his original point, “That I believe that the number one environmental issue today is water. Yes, water is exacerbated by climate change, but climate change did not cause – and does not cause – one to three million people dying [per year] through lack of drinking water and water sanitation…I don’t think a lot of Americans realise that in the 21st century, we still have people [in Africa] that have to walk ten miles each way to get water for their families.”