When it comes to air quality regulations in the L.A. area, few individuals are as influential as environmental attorney Robert Wyman.
Employed by many of the region’s largest manufacturers, Wyman has successfully lobbied for a number of market-based programs to meet local air quality standards. In the process, he has emerged as one of the most powerful advocates in the halls of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which sets air quality rules for the L.A. region.
Even though his clientele includes major corporations like Hughes Electronics, Chevron, Unocal and Edison International all major polluters Wyman insists he’s an environmentalist who believes market incentives are the best way to get businesses to cut pollution without sacrificing jobs and profits.
Perhaps the best example of that strategy is the RECLAIM program. Wyman is widely regarded as the godfather of the program, which requires more than 300 area factories to reduce emissions by about 7 percent a year or to buy “emission reduction credits” from companies that earned them by cutting their own pollution beyond the minimum requirement.
Wyman learned the importance of clean air at a young age. As a child, he suffered from asthma, a condition made more acute by the intense smog in Southern California. But at the same time he watched his family climb into the middle class through his father’s work for an appliance manufacturer. Trying to balance these two influences has formed the foundation of Wyman’s work.
Question: It seems we made really dramatic gains in our air quality in the late 1970s and through the 1980s but have sort of reached a plateau in the late 1990s. Do you see that plateau continuing? What lies ahead for our region’s air quality?
Answer: The gains you’re referring to have been in the area of ozone and volatile organic compounds generated by major stationary sources (factories). What’s happening now is that the AQMD has been broadening its focus. It’s recognizing the need for reductions from every source category, especially mobile source emissions (cars, trucks, buses, trains). Also, you’re going to see further reductions in particulates, those small particles of dust and soot that get into the air. And finally, more attention is being paid to local concerns, including environmental justice issues (pollution disproportionately affecting low-income and minority neighborhoods).
Q: You say you’re an environmentalist but your career has been spent trying to ease the burden on major polluters. How do you reconcile that contradiction?
A: There is no contradiction here. In order to retain the political will to achieve environmental targets, you need to find the most cost-effective way possible. Otherwise, if you place too huge a burden on business or any other sector of society you will lose the political will. I am a firm believer in the power of the marketplace. Society and government need to set the (environmental) goals, but the best means of achieving those goals are through markets. And that is what the clients I represent believe. Detractors of the market approach say there is something inherently bad about manufacturing, that businesses can’t be trusted to reduce their emissions. But in fact, we are all polluters, and the question is how best to allocate our resources to this problem.
Q: You mean you don’t spend your time trying to get major polluters off the hook?
A: Contrary to popular belief, I don’t. Every client I take on agrees that they must work to reduce their emissions, and I work with them to see how best it should be done. I do have an environmental conscience I have turned away dozens of clients who are not willing to commit to reasonable environmental controls. If they want to avoid responsibility altogether, we don’t want anything to do with them. Now if they have objections on how a regulatory program is being implemented, or they think they have a better, more cost-effective way to reduce their emissions, that’s another story.
Q: But in a market framework, won’t companies naturally seek to delay or minimize the resources they put into emission reduction?
A: There’s no question the marketplace may shift the timing of emission reductions: some may be accelerated and some may be delayed. But let’s look at the larger picture here. These market detractors believe government should make the choices for people, and tell them how to reduce emissions. It will certainly be more costly. But again, it goes back to their basic belief that business cannot be trusted to make the right choices.
Q: You have a lot of influence at the South Coast Air Quality Management District some critics say too much influence. How did that come about?
A: For the past 10 years, I have committed virtually all of my time to air quality regulations, one of the few environmental attorneys in the region who has made this an exclusive commitment. So there is no doubt I’ve spent much of my time at the AQMD, and just being there probably conveys a sense of influence. But that doesn’t mean I have all this power people say I do. I’ve lost my share of battles at the district. And the victories have come about not because I’m all-powerful but because we’ve been selective in how we advocate. If our idea prevails and is adopted, it’s because we’ve done our homework and made sure it’s a good idea on the merits.
Q: How did the Regulatory Flexibility Group, the coalition of major manufacturers that you represent, come about?
A: Back in the late 1980s, Southern California Edison and Unocal came to me to talk about the environmental regulations they were facing. From their point of view, it was becoming increasingly difficult for them to plan ahead, given that the regulations were coming down on a case-by-case basis as standards were set for every piece of equipment. As a firm believer in markets to solve environmental problems, I recommended they work together with other manufacturers to advocate on behalf of the market approach. By that, I mean putting a set of overall emission reduction goals out there and leaving it up to the companies to figure out the best way to get there. Edison and Unocal were convinced that the market approach would be a much more efficient way to get the emission reduction standards set forth in the (federal) Clean Air Act. Soon we had General Motors, Hughes, Northrop, TRW and Chevron in the group.
Q: And, of course, that group has been the prime lobbying force behind the creation of RECLAIM and a host of other programs at the AQMD. But they’re all rather mainstream. Have you handled any unusual cases or clients?
A: Back in the 1980s, officials with Northrop Corp. visited our offices. They couldn’t tell me what their project involved or where it was located. All they said was that they needed (pollution) credits transferred from their plant in Pico Rivera to one in Palmdale. That made it more difficult to represent them, because I couldn’t go into details with the AQMD. I only found out years later that the transfer was for the development of the Stealth Bomber.
Q: When did you decide to become an environmental lawyer?
A: In my last year of law school, I clerked here at Latham & Watkins. And the advice I was given was that I should find an area of the law that I really cared about and then plunge into it. I always had an interest in public policy in high school and college I spent much of my time on debating teams.
I also cared about the environment; as a child, I suffered from asthma. When my family settled in L.A. and I started playing tennis for two or three hours an afternoon, I remember coming home and collapsing on the floor for up to half an hour just trying to breathe again. That was when the smog was really thick much worse than it is now.
At the time I made the decision to specialize in environmental law, there were only four attorneys in the field at Latham & Watkins; now there are over 80.
Q: If you care so much about the environment, why didn’t you decide to work for an environmental group?
A: That also goes back to my childhood. My father was an engineer who went to work for an appliance manufacturer. He moved up and eventually became a top executive at the company. And this was a man who came from a poor family. My father’s experience formed my belief that the manufacturing sector should be valued as a productive force, as a way for individuals to progress. I knew that whatever I did as an attorney, I had to help ensure that manufacturing jobs would always be there, so that other people could move up just like my father did.