House Dems probing EPA officials' relationships with utilities group

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
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Rep. Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee

Washington — The House Energy and Commerce Committee has launched a probe into Environmental Protection Agency officials' ties to utilities and is seeking information from DTE Energy as part of the investigation. 

Democrats leading the panel sent letters Thursday to DTE and seven other electric utilities, as well as a Washington law firm, requesting details about their relationship with an industry group called the Utility Air Regulatory Board.

Lawmakers said they're concerned about whether EPA officials are working to roll back Clean Air Act regulations to benefit former clients, citing a February report in POLITICO showing regulators' agenda to be "remarkably similar to the substantive agenda advanced by UARG." 

They also say two former employees of the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP may have violated federal ethics rules by "helping reverse EPA's position in ongoing litigation" to favor DTE Energy, which is a client of the Hunton firm. 

The lawmakers were referring to allegations that EPA officials William Wehrum and David Harlow of the Office of Air and Radiation — and formerly of the Hunton firm — helped persuade the EPA to abandon its position in years-long litigation with DTE over air pollution from its coal-fired power plant in Monroe. 

Ethics rules prohibit EPA officials from partaking in matters involving former clients, and Harlow had represented DTE while at Hunton, according to the committee. 

Asked about the probe, EPA spokesman James Hewitt said the agency had not received a similar letter from lawmakers Thursday. 

"Since Bill Wehrum and David Harlow started at EPA, they have both been recused from all particular matters where DTE is a party," Hewitt said. 

The request to individual utilities came from Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee; Paul Tonko of New York; and Diana DeGette of Colorado.

Gerard Anderson, chairman and CEO of DTE Energy

"UARG has avoided transparency, with details of its funding and internal organization only recently revealed," they wrote to DTE Chairman and CEO Gerard Anderson and the other utility executives. 

"Because of your company's participation in UARG, we are writing to request certain materials from your company to assist the committee in its investigation of these issues." 

The lawmakers say DTE contributed $301,827 in 2017 to UARG with a "higher contribution projected for 2018." 

DTE spokesman Pete Ternes stressed Thursday that the committee is investigating EPA officials and their involvement with the Utility Air Regulatory Group.

He acknowledged DTE participates in the UARG, along with most other energy companies, and said the Detroit utility also participates in "several" environmental groups.

"They work with us to advocate for appropriate and reasonable regulations that ensure we have strong environmental standards and the ability to serve our customers," Ternes said.

"As part of the investigation, they are seeking information from the industry, and we are reviewing their requests."

The committee is asking Anderson to disclose the source of funds that DTE contributes to UARG and how those contributions are "consistent with your obligations to ratepayers."

If the company used ratepayer funds, lawmakers want to know if the state public utility commission specifically approved the use of funds for this purpose. 

DTE did not respond Thursday to a question about whether the funds used for UARG come from ratepayer or shareholder monies. 

A spokesman for the Michigan Public Service Commission said the agency does not oversee how companies spend shareholder dollars. 

The House committee also requested documents from DTE related to UARG, and requested communications and documents exchanged between DTE employees and certain EPA employees.

The lawmakers specifically asked for information about a meeting attended by Wehrum and a DTE employee in December 2017 around the time that lawmakers say the EPA changed its position in the litigation involving DTE. 

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