At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), we sit down with Andrew Wheeler, the former chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to discuss what he sees as the major untold accomplishments of the Trump administration when it comes to environmental protection and why he disagrees with the Biden administration’s decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement.
Jan Jekielek: We’re here at CPAC 2021 with now former administrator Andrew Wheeler of the EPA. Let’s start with this. The Trump administration has been portrayed, certainly in the corporate media, as having very, very poor environmental policies. I know when we’ve talked offline, you believe you’ve had some successes. I’d love to hear what you believe are the successes of the Trump administration’s environmental policies.
Andrew Wheeler: Thank you for asking me because you’re right. It’s not covered in most of the corporate media. All the environmental indicators under President Trump improved. Our air today is seven percent cleaner than it was when President Trump took office and our water quality is the highest it’s ever been. On the Superfund side, we got more sites cleaned up in a generation. And we enforced the environmental laws.
A lot of people wrote us off saying that we didn’t believe the environment, but we actually collected twice as much in criminal and civil penalties as the Obama administration did during their first four years, twice as much. So we were certainly out there enforcing the laws, making sure that all the environmental indicators improved. At the same time, we put forward cost-effective regulations, so it wouldn’t cost American jobs. We had an incredible track record. I’m very proud of it.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s very interesting, and what about carbon emissions? I had heard and you can qualify this for me—but as I understood it the Trump administration withdrew America from the Paris Accord, which now America has been entered into again. But from my understanding, those carbon emissions requirements were actually adhered to irrespective of that [withdrawal].
Mr. Wheeler: Yes, in fact, in the United States, we’ve reduced our CO2 emissions by 12 percent since 2005. And under President Trump, our EPA, we put forward four different regulations to reduce greenhouse gases. Now, the Obama administration put forward their clean power plan that was struck down by the Supreme Court. So we replaced it with a regulation that made sense and reduced CO2 emissions for the electric power sector.
We put forward for common sense regulations to address climate change and reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gases. And the corporate media does not give us credit for that at all or the Democrats in Congress, because they don’t want to see a Republican having a good environmental record. And we had an incredible environmental record under President Trump’s watch.
Mr. Jekielek: What do you think about the re-entry into the Paris Accord?
Mr. Wheeler: At best, it’s unnecessary and worse, it could hurt American jobs and innovation and American taxpayers. Most of the other first world countries were not following the Paris Climate Accord targets that they set for themselves. Both Germany and France have fallen behind in their targets. We were reducing our CO2 levels, and more so than just about any of our trading partners.
China benefits the most from the Paris Climate Accord, because they don’t have to do anything until after 2030, so it gives them a competitive advantage against the United States. And also under the climate accord, it requires us to put a lot of money in some international organizations that don’t have a good track record of how they spend that money. It’s going to be horrible for the taxpayers, horrible for jobs, and unnecessary because we were already reducing our greenhouse gases.
Mr. Jekielek: This China question is actually quite interesting, because America has determined that there’s a genocide happening in China, specifically in Xinjiang province, but China is also acutely aware of the fact that basically, this Paris Accord is one of the top priorities of the Biden administration. Green is the top priority. So the fear, at least for many of the analysts that I’ve seen, is that they’ll be able to use that as a kind of a bargaining chip of sorts, or maybe even leverage.
Mr. Wheeler: At the end of the day on climate and on emissions reductions, China makes a lot of promises. Every time Western countries criticize them for their track record, they come out with an even bigger promise, “We’re going to make even bigger reductions 15 years from now.” Then they get a lot of criticism in the next few years. And they said, “Well, we’re going to make even bigger reductions 12 years from now.” But we never quite get to that timeframe where the reductions happen.
They, right now under the Paris Climate Accord, have a blank check, as far as they can increase their emissions, as much as they want, until 2030. Then they set their own goal in 2030 as far as what they want to reduce it to. It’s not an agreement that has benefited the United States. It certainly hasn’t required or encouraged reductions in China so far—other than a lot of promises.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk a bit about Texas. This has been huge in the news. A big topic was the windmills freezing and the green energy basically not being an effective source of energy in this unusual weather situation in Texas. Tell me a little bit about the policy involved in that. I know you’ve been thinking about this.
Mr. Wheeler: I think it’s going to take a little bit of time for people to analyze and figure out everything that went wrong in Texas. They were dealing with a once-in-a-century storm. Apparently, they did not have their equipment properly winterized. But then at the same time, I don’t believe they had the right mix of power. I believe in all the above and under President Trump, under his leadership, we did not pick winners and losers between the different sources of energy.
We need baseload generation in this country. We’re a very energy intensive country. I’m not just for manufacturing, but for the electricity that people want and demand in their own homes. We have to have a wide variety of mix to take care of the needs that we have, so that when a storm like this happens, we have the baseload generation from natural gas or coal or other fossil fuels or nuclear in order to step in and make sure that we have enough electricity.
Every form of electricity, in my opinion, has both positive and negative aspects. Regarding the environment, the only one that I can think of that doesn’t have a negative would be the geothermal. But there are negatives to solar—you use a lot of rare earth minerals in the production of solar panels. They have hazardous materials in them. You can’t just send them to a regular municipal waste site. You have to treat them as hazardous waste at the end of their life. Windmills do horrible things to migratory birds and bats. Nuclear, coal, natural gas; they all have negatives, but they all have positives.
If we’re going to become more reliant on renewables, we have to increase battery storage. But then batteries take a lot of rare earth minerals as well and also have their own disposal issues at the end of their lifespan. So we need to have a recognition from everyone.
The energy sector knows this already. But it’s glossed over by policymakers, politicians, the press and the American public as far as what are the trade offs? What are the positives and the negatives for all of our energy sources? We need to have a wide variety in order to make sure that when events like this happen in Texas, we have enough backup generation to keep the power on so that we don’t have people freezing in their homes.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about natural gas, the production side of natural gas.
Mr. Wheeler: President Biden on the campaign trail said a lot of things on natural gas. At least so far, they’ve put a freeze on any new natural gas development on federal lands, which wipes out a lot of the natural gas development all across the west. I think that’s the wrong approach. Obviously, I think it’s the wrong approach because it hurts the American consumer, hurts jobs here.
President Trump left this country energy dominant. We were providing energy to our allies. Energy is an incredible product that we can help our allies around the world with, to promote more freedom in other countries so that they aren’t dependent on countries such as Russia for their energy demands. Over the last four years, the worst environmental decision by any politician in the country was by Governor Cuomo in New York, when he vetoed the natural gas pipeline, taking the natural gas from Pennsylvania into New York and New England.
He said he’s doing it because of climate change. But instead of having natural gas from Pennsylvania going into New England, you have natural gas from Europe or from Africa going into New England. There was a Russian tanker in Boston Harbor four or five years ago delivering natural gas to Boston, instead of using our own natural gas here in the United States.
When we produce our energy here, like natural gas, it’s more environmentally conscious than any other country in the world. So it’s better for the environment. Do we want natural gas produced under U.S. regulations, or do we want to use natural gas produced under Russian regulations? I vote for American regulations.
Mr. Jekielek: Administrator Wheeler, it’s such a pleasure to have you on again.
Mr. Wheeler: Thank you. It’s great to be with you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.