EPA Appoints Former PG&E Attorney to Head Regional Office in San Francisco

John Busterud was appointed the head of the EPA's San Francisco headquarters. (Courtesy of John Busterud)

The Trump administration Tuesday named a former PG&E attorney to head the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s regional office in San Francisco.

John Busterud will manage roughly 700 staff employees and oversee environmental protection efforts across EPA’s Region 9, which includes 50 million people living in California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, the Pacific Islands and tribal lands.

The appointment comes amid continuing conflict between California and the federal government over environmental policy.

Among the areas of disagreement are the Trump administration’s policies aimed at expanding domestic oil and gas production, and its rollback of environmental regulations. California, a state with robust environmental enforcement, is seeking to transition away from fossil fuels.

Busterud’s experience includes serving as a board member for the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance, a group that represents the natural gas industry, among other types of business.

Bill Quinn, the council’s president and CEO, said in a statement that Busterud is “uniquely qualified to provide strong and steady leadership for EPA and Region 9. John understands the issues and knows the key players, particularly here in California.”

Daniel Kammen, a UC Berkeley professor who chairs the university’s Energy and Resources Group, was critical of the appointment, saying Busterud “certainly feels like a Trump administration appointee.”

“His resume is of an oil-and-gas knowledgeable person with exceedingly little background on the environment,” Kammen said. “EPA's job is to protect and defend the environment, both natural and human. His background looks very much like he is someone with experience and depth on the traditional energy side of PG&E.”

At PG&E, Busterud directed the department of the environment and real estate. He worked on issues related to air and water quality, endangered species, toxic waste and environmental policy, according to an EPA press release.

PG&E spokesperson Paul Doherty said in an email that Busterud retired from the company’s law department in 2016 after serving 30 years with the utility.

“He has deep knowledge, expertise and experience in climate policy,” Doherty said. “He helped the company advocate for its positions supporting California’s bold clean energy goals, with a focus on our customers and communities.”

When asked to elaborate on Busterud's work on oil and gas issues for the utility, Doherty would only say "he had a 30-year career at the company. He had broad experience."

The state has sparred with the Trump administration over climate change and the environment more than on any other issue. California has won favorable rulings in the majority of environmental cases on which the courts have ruled, although many are still pending.

Jared Blumenfeld, California's top environmental regulator, told the San Francisco Chronicle that Busterud "seems reasonable and generally thoughtful on the issues" and  "has the potential to do a good job."

“Hopefully, he’ll be able to fulfill EPA’s mandate to protect human health and the environment," Blumenfeld said. "He’s going to have a tough job because the Trump administration is out to get California, San Francisco and the environment in general.”

Last week, the Justice Department dropped an antitrust investigation into four car manufacturers that sided with California in an ongoing dispute with the administration over car pollution and smog.

Busterud said in a statement that it is an “honor and privilege” to take the position with the EPA, and that he looks forward to working with EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “We are committed to building on the agency’s legacy of success by providing clean and safe air, water and land for all Americans,” Busterud said.

Wheeler praised Busterud’s background in energy and environmental issues.

Busterud is a retired U.S. Army Colonel with multiple active duty deployments in Iraq and on the Korean Peninsula.

While he will not be in a position of setting policy, he will set the tone for how thoroughly his office presses polluters to comply with regulations. Regional EPA offices also help states in meeting their climate goals, provide technical input to large development projects and offer grants to local governments and organizations.

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War of Words

Busterud replaces Mike Stoker, a former oil industry spokesperson, who was fired from his position as regional administrator less than a week ago.

EPA’s termination of Stoker sparked a war of words with his former employer. Stoker said he was let go after receiving praise from Democrats, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

“You don’t protect public health and environment in Democratic neighborhoods when you are Democratic president or in Republican neighborhoods when you are a Republican president, you do it everywhere,” Stoker said.

But Stoker received scrutiny from the EPA’s inspector general after an internal complaint claiming he was traveling excessively and not spending much time with his staff, who are headquartered in San Francisco. Stoker managed the office from Southern California.

An EPA spokeswoman said Stoker was let go for “severe neglect and incompetent administration of his duties.”