Days after the Environmental Protection Agency’s top official in California was abruptly removed, the agency announced Tuesday that it would replace him with John W. Busterud, a former lawyer for Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the state’s largest electric power provider.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler praised Busterud’s “extensive background in energy and environmental issues” in a news release announcing the change, and said he was a “great choice” to lead the Pacific Southwest regional office that oversees California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii and other western territories.
The appointment continues a trend of the Trump administration filling the government’s environmental jobs with people who have ties to the power sector, fossil fuels, agribusiness and other industries subject to federal regulations.
Busterud has spent more than 30 years as an attorney specializing in environmental and energy issues, most recently as PG&E’s senior director and managing counsel for environment and real estate, according to the EPA news release. He retired in 2016. The company filed for bankruptcy last year after a series of devastating wildfires, many of which were sparked by its power grid structures, left it with with potential liabilities for damages reaching billions of dollars.
Busterud also served for five years on the EPA’s Clean Air Act Advisory Committee as an industry representative.
His appointment is the latest development in the administration’s ongoing battle against California’s environmental policies. Under Trump, the federal government has revoked the state’s authority to set tougher car pollution rules, sued California over its cap-and-trade agreement to reduce fossil fuel emissions and accused the state of not meeting federal water quality standards.
Less than a week ago, the agency suddenly dismissed the regional office’s former administrator, Mike Stoker. He did not go quietly, but instead traded accusations over the reasons for his firing with senior EPA officials in Washington.
An avid Trump supporter, Stoker nonetheless had a congenial working relationship with Democratic lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco. In a letter to his staff, he suggested that nonpartisanship was a factor in his ouster, along with his clashes with agency officials in Washington “over policy and non-policy items.”
Stoker last week told The Times that he had recently been warned by a senior EPA official that “it wasn’t going unnoticed how many Democrat members in Congress were commending me for the job I was doing.”
EPA spokeswoman Corry Schiermeyer, in a statement last week, disputed Stoker’s account, calling his description of events “all made up.”
“Mike was too interested in travel for the sake of travel and ignored necessary decision making required of a regional administrator,” she said.
The agency’s move and the accusations that followed puzzled some California lawmakers and EPA regional staffers.
Stoker’s appointment had been controversial and there were complaints to the agency that he traveled heavily, and yet infrequently visited the region’s main office in San Francisco where the overwhelming number of employees work. Those concerns prompted a review last year by the agency’s Office of the Inspector General.
But when the watchdog released its report showing that Stoker spent only 20% of his time in San Francisco, the EPA defended him.