Andrew Wheeler, former aide to climate change denier Sen. James Inhofe, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee staff director, and more recently fossil-fuel lobbyist, is now temporarily in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency following the resignation of scandal-plagued former administrator Scott Pruitt. While Wheeler seems less likely to hang out with climate change-denying accused child abusers or run up multi-million dollar bills for an almost certainly unnecessary 24/7 security detail, his ascension to head of the EPA is not exactly great news.
Now-acting administrator Wheeler previously worked for the EPA in the 1990s. But he views his agenda as exactly the same as the openly EPA-hostile Pruitt’s, except with more press-friendly aphorisms like “you can’t lead unless you listen.” In a speech to the agency’s staff on Wednesday, the Washington Post reported, Wheeler defined his three top priorities as the ones Donald Trump gave him: clean air (sure), clean water (also kind of a baseline), and regulatory relief (fundamentally in opposition to those two prior priorities).
Wheeler very clearly told staff at EPA headquarters on Wednesday that the agency was not course-correcting on a policy level, just executing the same policies without all the distractions, paranoia, and obvious corruption. The Post writes:
“We will continue to build on these accomplishments” achieved since Trump took office in January 2017, Wheeler said, adding that the president gave him a clear sense of what he expected when the two men spoke by phone on Thursday.
“He said, ‘Clean up the air, clean up the water and provide regulatory relief.’ I think we can do all of those things at the same time,” Wheeler said.
Even as Wheeler has promised to move forward with the regulatory rollbacks that Pruitt began and to follow through on President Trump’s promises to make the EPA smaller and more industry-friendly, he vowed Wednesday to be more transparent about his actions than his predecessor.
Transparency measures announced by Wheeler during the speech included visiting EPA offices and taking questions from staff. He is also rolling back the executive security detail, appears to be avoiding secrecy in his official schedule, and will allow staff to enter the administrator’s “third-floor office suite” Pruitt equipped with enhanced security measures and had locked down, according to the Post. (As the Associated Press noted, in his speech to staff, he avoided directly criticizing Pruitt as the source of those behaviors.)
What was not announced by Wheeler was anything to do with climate change, including the phrase “climate change” itself, which did not leave his mouth once during the speech. While Wheeler recently told the Post that climate change is “real” and “people have an impact on the climate”—not exactly a wholesale endorsement of climate science—he also said he believes the EPA’s role on the climate “is to follow the statutes that are provided to us by Congress. And I think that the statutory directives are very small.”
According to Politico, Wheeler instead seemed to view his new role as largely about ensuring the country continues to exploit natural resources for economic benefit:
“America is blessed with abundant natural resources, resources we use to fuel and feed the world,” he said. “We will continue to protect and steward these resources for the benefit of ourselves and our prosperity.”
And he recited many of the same phrases popular with Pruitt and other conservatives about changes they wanted to make at the agency.
“We’re also restoring the rule of law, reigning in federal regulatory overreach and refocusing EPA on its core responsibilities,” Wheeler said. “As a result, the economy is booming and economic optimism is surging.”
Though he said he would work on Superfund site cleanup (one of the few things left largely untouched through the Pruitt era) and improve water infrastructure, Politico wrote he also emphasized turning back environmental enforcement to the states, processing permitting decisions more quickly, and how the EPA’s lengthy enforcement proceeding process “hurts competitiveness.” Per the New Yorker, though he’s promised to avoid conflicts of interest by recusing himself from decisions involving companies he used to work for, ethics watchdogs have warned Wheeler could simply make those decisions anyways with little chance of repercussions or seek a waiver.
In any case, it’s probably more reasonable to be worried about what this list of Wheeler’s list of former lobbying clients provided by Bloomberg indicates about his policy leanings rather than whether he will seek to enrich them specifically:
Before Wheeler became EPA’s deputy administrator in April, he lobbied for companies affected by the agency’s policies, including the coal producer Murray Energy Corp., the utility Xcel Energy Inc. and Energy Fuels Inc., a uranium miner.
While the New Yorker article wrote it is possible Wheeler will strike a more moderate tone than Pruitt on climate change, he is still working to undermine the Barack Obama-era Clean Power Plan, and “works for Trump and is subject to his moods and whims.” The magazine noted that while Pruitt’s wrecking-ball approach to rolling back regulations left him exposed to legal challenges, Wheeler may be less sloppy in his approach.
Denise D. Morrison, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council No. 238 which represents over 8,000 EPA workers, told the Post that Wheeler’s appointment was “simply a superficial attempt to plug the leaks and quell the dissent. A successful coal lobbyist doesn’t change his stripes. He will continue to champion deregulation and permit big polluters to evade compliance altogether.”
Wheeler will likely hold the top seat for a while, Pacific Standard reported, due to his cozy relationship with Senate Republicans and their lack of desire for another confirmation fight before his acting administrator role runs out in 2019. Pruitt, for what it’s worth, could still be planning to use the infamy he generated during his time at the agency to fuel a run for office on the triggered-the-libs ticket, though there’s no reason to suspect he will trip over his own incompetence any less at that.