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Experts brace for more attacks on clean air, water as Senate confirms Wheeler to head EPA

Wheeler has furthered Pruitt's agenda, but there's one key difference now: congressional oversight.

Andrew Wheeler is officially confirmed as the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. (Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Andrew Wheeler is officially confirmed as the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. (Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Ethics and environmental experts are warning that clean air and water protections remain in jeopardy under the leadership of Andrew Wheeler, who was officially confirmed by the Senate to be the permanent head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday.

The Senate confirmed Wheeler in a 52-47 vote. Two moderate senators, who previously voted to confirm Wheeler as deputy administrator, this time voted against him due to concerns over clean water standards and climate change — Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who was the only Republican to vote against Wheeler’s confirmation on Thursday, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).

Wheeler has been serving as acting administrator since last summer, following the resignation of Scott Pruitt. While the two are aligned in their policy priorities, unlike Pruitt, Wheeler has so far managed to stay out of the spotlight when it comes to personal scandals.

As a former coal lobbyist, however, Wheeler’s elevation to head of the EPA comes with a series of ethical questions and policy concerns. While he is widely expected to advance a similar anti-environment agenda, experts told ThinkProgress there is a key difference now: with a new Democratic majority in Congress, oversight and accountability should be much more rigorous than it was under Pruitt.

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“As an agency, EPA will likely need a decade of dedicated leadership to recover from the Pruitt/Wheeler era,” Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, an environmental government watchdog, told ThinkProgress via email. “Wheeler’s tenure would continue the politicization of all EPA activity — regulations, enforcement, and scientific research.”

Experts say the policy areas they will be watching most closely are those related to air and water — two issues President Donald Trump has repeatedly touted as priorities for his administration. Yet the administration’s actions tell a different story, as environmental protections are eliminated or weakened in favor of industry interests.

This includes an expected rollback of the Clean Water Act, where a current agency proposal would remove protections from as much as 60 percent of U.S. waters and wetlands.

In recent weeks, Wheeler has faced mounting scrutiny for the agency’s failure to fully tackle toxic manufacturing chemicals (known as PFAS) found in drinking water across the country. The agency is also continuing efforts to relax rules on coal ash, which can contaminate waterways with harmful chemicals.

Regarding air quality, the EPA is currently targeting rules on car emissions standards, Mercury and Air Toxics (MATs) standards for power plant emissions, and updates to the Kigali Amendment, which regulates levels of potent ozone-depleting greenhouse gases known as HFCs.

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In pursuit of these rollbacks, Wheeler has faced opposition from environmentalists and industry groups alike — including utilities, car companies, and businesses involved in cooling, heating, and refrigerants subject to HFC regulations.

Despite this, Wheeler remains the primary obstacle on many of these issues, Melinda Pierce, federal policy director at the Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress. So, as Pierce pointed out, the question remains: “Who does it benefit?” Often, that’s the coal industry.

During his relatively short tenure, Wheeler has been successful in helping implement his former clients’ wish list. Bob Murray, the chief executive of coal company Murray Energy, famously presented a list of 20 policies he wanted changed under the Trump administration. Wheeler was present for a 2017 meeting with Murray and Energy Secretary Rick Perry during which Murray pitched a proposal to bail out the coal industry. Since then, many of the items on the list have been achieved, including rules related to coal plant emissions, coal ash, and federal monitoring of groundwater.

This corporate influence on Wheeler “is, in fact, a fairly large ethical challenge,” said Pierce.

Wheeler’s ethics pledge mandates that he recuse himself from any meetings with former clients or involvement on issues on which he previously lobbied for his former employer until April of 2020.

“The ethics pledge was put in place by President Trump himself, so they have held themselves to these standards and they have to be held accountable,” said Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel for the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

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According to news reports, however, there are already questions about whether he’s following the pledge. Last year, shortly after becoming acting administrator, Wheeler reportedly held a stakeholder meeting with biodiesel producer Darling Ingredient, a former client of his. Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers continue to probe the extent of influence Murray Energy has over the agency.

Pruitt’s failure largely came because there was an abuse of government resources,” said Canter. “I think Wheeler’s potential abuses will arise from policy-making which will have significant longstanding implications. So, I think it’s important to be vigilant as to what he is participating in.”

“Instead of lobbying on the outside,” she said, “it’s lobbying on the inside, although it’s a much more dangerous situation because they have power to control regulatory environment.”

But while Wheeler and Pruitt’s anti-environmental goals may be similar, the difference now is the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. “One of the problems when Pruitt was there, was you didn’t have congressional oversight. Everybody was turning their heads the other way,” Canter said. “I think that is a different scenario now. And, therefore… that presents different opportunities for holding individuals accountable.”

As soon as Wheeler’s promotion became official, some lawmakers were vowing to do just that. “The Trump administration has consistently used EPA political appointments to advance private political interests at the expense of public health and consumer safety,” Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) said in a statement to ThinkProgress. “Andrew Wheeler has a long history lobbying for big polluters and his appointment as EPA Administrator is akin to hiring a fox to guard the hen house.”

“Rest assured,” he continued, “our Environment and Climate Change subcommittee will be keeping a close eye to ensure EPA returns to its history as an agency that is accountable to the American people.”