House Democrats question whether EPA officials violated ethics rules in rollback of air pollution regulations that benefitted TVA, other electric utilities

House Democrats question whether EPA officials violated ethics rules in rollback of air pollution regulations that benefitted TVA, other electric utilities

April 16th, 2019 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

A congressional panel is investigating whether EPA officials violated ethics rules by trying to roll back air pollution regulations that benefited their former clients in the electric utility sector, including the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has asked TVA and seven other utilities for the companies' communications with an industry group that was run from the offices of the lobbying firm Hunton Andrews Kurth, which had employed EPA officials Bill Wehrum and David Harlow.

The industry organization known as the Utility Air Regulatory Group (URAG) received $8.2 million in 2017 alone for the lobbying firm, including $462,967 from TVA, and the House panel is looking into whether Wehrum may have violated ethics guidelines by changing EPA policies and programs to benefit the URAG donors, according to a report in Politico.

In a letter to TVA, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said committee members "are deeply troubled by several reports of allegedly unethical behavior by EPA officials, particularly in the Office of Air and Radiation, and their relationship with the Utility Air Regulatory Group (UARG), of which the Tennessee Valley Authority is a member."

"These allegations have raised substantial questions regarding whether these officials are properly carrying out the Clean Air Act as directed by Congress or instead changing agency polices and programs to benefit former clients," Pellone said.

The EPA's new rules "appear remarkably similar to the substantive agenda advanced by UARG," which was pushing to ease emission standards from coal-fired power plants, Pallone said.

Wehrum currently serves as the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, while Harlow serves as the Office of Air and Radiation's Senior Counsel.

TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said TVA is drafting a response to the Congressional inquiry, but he said TVA has been a long-time member of the Utility Air Regulatory Group, "which helps us and other utilities better understand and comply with Clean Air Act regulations.

"TVA is not required to follow the UARG membership's recommendations or positions, and we do not participate in or fund any UARG litigation or lobbying," Hopson said.

But URAG "has avoided any transparency, with details of its funding and internal organization only recently revealed," Pellone said in his request for more details about each utilities' involvement with the group.

Jonathan Levenshus, a leader of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, raised concerns about TVA's support for the industry group and its positions during his appearance before the TVA board in 2016.

"As a corporate agency of the federal government, TVA should not be involved with an entity that regularly sues the federal government," he said. "For decades, UARG's work has resulted in numerous lawsuits to delay, roll back, or block environmental and public health laws affecting the electric power industry. It's time for TVA to own up to UARG's record of trying to prolong air pollution from power plants and leave this organization once and for all."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340