Special Topics in Environmental Management

Wheeler Discusses Prioritization of Water Over Climate

In his first nationally broadcast interview, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said “most of the threats from climate change are 50 to 75 years out.”

Drinking water

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Several days later, the Sierra Club filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request demanding that the EPA produce any records it has supporting this particular assertion by Wheeler.

People Dying from Bad Water

Wheeler emphasized that the larger environmental challenge, internationally, is provision of clean water.

“When you have one to three million people dying annually because of lack of potable water or water sanitation, I think that’s a crisis, and I don’t think the international community is spending enough time or resources to address that problem,” Wheeler said. He added that 1,000 children die each day because of contaminated drinking water. The administrator said that the resources are available to improve the quality of drinking water but that more commitments are need from the United Nations and the World Bank to effect meaningful change.

According to Wheeler, 92 percent of water in the United States meets the EPA safety criteria. But the Agency is doing more, he said, by providing federal funding to communities to rebuild water infrastructure, aiming to improve the lead and copper rule and, through an action plan, addressing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that have been found in drinking water.

Preference for ‘Medium-Risk’ Scenarios

While the United States is planning to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, Wheeler pointed out that the nation is still meeting the commitments it made.  The United States has cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 14 percent since 2005, which is better than achievements by most other industrialized nations, said Wheeler. Moreover, the EPA is working to reduce emissions further through rulemaking by establishing limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and by enhancing the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.

Wheeler said he believes Democratic presidential candidates are not being reasonable when they state that climate change is creating a catastrophic situation as evidenced by the California wildfires and Midwest flooding. Also, when asked about the Green New Deal, Wheeler said that proposal included no safety net for energy security.

Regarding the Fourth National Climate Assessment, Wheeler said the press has been narrowly focused on the worst-case scenarios contained in that report, which was written by staff from 13 federal agencies, including the EPA.

“If you read the entire report, there were a number of different scenarios that were studied,” said Wheeler. “If you look at the medium risk factors scenarios and calculations, yes, there are things we need to be concerned about, but we’re working on that.”

Sierra Club Wants to See the Science

The Sierra Club has a different understanding of the Assessment, stating:

“Among the Assessment’s many findings, ‘Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities,’ ‘The impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States,’ and ‘Observations collected around the world provide significant, clear, and compelling evidence that global average temperature is much higher, and is rising more rapidly, than anything modern civilization has experienced, with widespread and growing impacts.’”

“We are confident that EPA’s response to this [FOIA] request will reveal that Wheeler’s assertion was unsupported by science and is inconsistent with the research and conclusions of the U.S. government’s career scientists,” said Sierra Club Attorney Matthew Miller.

“We are prepared to hold Wheeler and EPA accountable in court if the agency fails to respond fully and timely to this request as required by law.”