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WASHINGTON — William L. Wehrum, who played a central role in Trump administration efforts to weaken climate change protections and roll back regulations on the fossil fuel industry, will resign as head of the Environmental Protection Agency air quality office at the end of this month, the agency announced Wednesday.
Last week the E.P.A. moved to replace an Obama-era regulation that aimed to shutter coal-fired power plants with a new regulation that could help more coal plants open. Mr. Wehrum was the main architect of the new measure, the Affordable Clean Energy rule.
He was also a player in efforts to relax tailpipe pollution standards to change the way the agency measures the health consequences of air pollution.
“Mr. Wehrum oversaw the most relentless rollback of clean air, climate and health safeguards in E.P.A.’s history,” said John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “E.P.A. strengthened not a single meaningful air quality or climate safeguard during his tenure.”
Mr. Wehrum — who worked as a lobbyist and lawyer for the oil, gas and coal industries before joining the Trump administration — was also accused of ethics violations at the agency.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee has opened an inquiry into whether he improperly worked to reverse an enforcement action that would have aided a former client, DTE Energy, and watchdog groups have said he violated an ethics pledge by giving a presentation to former clients and by working on policy that could have affected litigation in which his former firm, Hunton & Williams, was involved.
E.P.A. officials have said that Mr. Wehrum took steps to avoid any conflicts of interest with former clients, and recused himself from particular matters that involve DTE Energy.
Representative Frank Pallone Jr., the New Jersey Democrat who leads the House energy committee, said that inquiry “should, and will, continue.”
Mandy Gunasekara, who served as the principal deputy assistant administrator in the air office under Mr. Wehrum, defended her departing boss, saying he was a victim of partisan politics.
“The Dems approach to an issue isn’t attacking the policy, it’s also attacking the person,” she said. Ms. Gunasekara said Mr. Wehrum, who formally steps down on Sunday, had always planned on leaving after some significant regulatory rollbacks were completed.
“He’s leaving on a high note,” Ms. Gunasekara said.
This was Mr. Wehrum’s second stint at the E.P.A. Office of Air and Radiation. He served as acting assistant administrator under President George W. Bush.
Mr. Wehrum returned to the agency in 2017, when Scott Pruitt was E.P.A. administrator. Supporters credited Mr. Wehrum with using his experience and stature in the agency to soothe the turbulent atmosphere under Mr. Pruitt, who barred career staff members from policy meetings and even from some areas within agency headquarters.
“Bill got there and quickly showed you could trust the career staff,” said Jeffrey R. Holmstead, a lawyer for the electric utility industry who has known Mr. Wehrum for more than two decades. Longtime employees dedicated to creating air and water pollution protections that were being unraveled by the Trump team, he said, “knew they wouldn’t always agree with Bill, but they knew he would listen to what they had to say.”
Mr. Pruitt resigned in July 2018 amid ethics scandals.
In a statement, Andrew Wheeler, the E.P.A. administrator, praised Mr. Wehrum’s service and said the departure had been planned.
“While I have known of Bill’s desire to leave at the end of this month for quite sometime, the date has still come too soon,” Mr. Wheeler said in the statement. “I applaud Bill and his team for finalizing the Affordable Clean Energy regulation last week and for the tremendous progress he has made in so many other regulatory initiatives.”
Anne Idsal, the principal deputy assistant administrator of the air office, will take over the role in an acting capacity, the agency said.
Ms. Idsal has cast doubt on the established science of climate change. “I think it’s possible that humans have some type of impact on climate change,” she said in a 2017 interview with the Texas Observer. “I just don’t know the extent of that.”
For more news on climate and the environment, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.
Lisa Friedman reports on climate and environmental policy in Washington. A former editor at Climatewire, she has covered nine international climate talks. @LFFriedman
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