President Donald Trump hinted on Tuesday that he’s considering nominating acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler to become the permanent head of the agency.
“He’s doing well, right? So maybe he won’t be so acting so long,” Trump said at an event organized by the White House.
From the perspective of implementing Trump’s anti-environment agenda, Wheeler is working as efficiently as former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to roll back environmental regulations. And Wheeler appears to be pushing Trump’s agenda more effectively because — so far, at least — he hasn’t gotten himself embroiled in a similar multitude of scandals that sidetracked Pruitt from his mission to effectively dismantle the EPA.
Trump’s praise for Wheeler came as the acting administrator was marking his first 100 days as EPA chief after being handed the reins of the agency after Pruitt departed. Pruitt resigned as EPA administrator on July 5; on the same day, Trump named Wheeler as acting administrator.
According to a new Sierra Club analysis, Wheeler has shown a similar zeal for rolling back regulations, implementing new decisions to undermine public health, clean air and water, and the climate once every three days since his tenure began.
From acting to roll back the Obama EPA’s Clean Power Plan, automobile air emissions standards, and protections from mercury poisoning, to placing the head of the Office of Children’s Health on leave, Wheeler has regularly used his position to put the health of the public at risk over the past 100 days.
In August, the EPA, under Wheeler’s leadership, formally proposed freezing federal fuel economy standards at 2020 levels across the country. The initiative is expected to raise costs for consumers and drastically increase pollution levels. Under the plan, the administration also said it will revoke a waiver that allowed California to set its own fuel mileage and emissions standards.
By 2030, the pollution equivalent of the proposed auto emissions standards rollback will be equal to firing up 30 coal power plants, according to Earthjustice. By 2040, if the Trump rollbacks are put into place, the annual pollution will be the equivalent of 43 coal-fired power plants, the group said.
“It is not the job of the EPA administrator to wheel and deal with corporate polluters, it is to help protect American families from toxic pollution,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said Tuesday in a statement. “Wheeler has no business being confirmed to a full-time role at EPA, and any senator who supports him has made clear they are prioritizing polluter profits over the public.”
The Sierra Club has tracked Wheeler’s action over the past 100 days. Among the rollbacks and questionable decisions were: 39 moves to attack public health; 14 major safeguard rollbacks; at least eight meetings with the fossil fuel industry and corporate polluters; eight misleading statements; three office closings or dismantlings; and the hiring of a former Koch Brothers executive.
Early in Wheeler’s tenure as acting EPA administrator, the agency finalized a rule to ease requirements for handling the toxic coal ash produced by burning coal at power plants. The new coal ash standards were the first major rule signed by Wheeler.
Every three days, Acting Administrator Wheeler has acted out of turn and harmed our health. He doesn't belong behind the wheel of the EPA. https://t.co/85YDs4sxpR
— Lauren Lantry (@LaurenLandTree) October 23, 2018
The new rule will extend the life of existing coal ash ponds from April 2019 to October 2020 and allow states to suspend groundwater monitoring at coal ash sites. The EPA estimated the rule change will save the industry between $28 million and $31 million annually in compliance costs.
Immediately prior to getting confirmed to the EPA as deputy administrator, Wheeler worked as a lobbyist whose clients included coal mining company Murray Energy Corp.
Among the conflicts of interest are calls and meetings with companies and industry trade groups whose members are heavily regulated by the EPA. According to his schedule, Wheeler has met with the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, oil company Valero Energy Corp., Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, and BP America.
Earlier this month, the EPA named David Dunlap, a former chemical engineer with Koch Industries, as its deputy chief of research and development. Prior to his eight years with Koch, Dunlap worked for the Chlorine Institute overseeing health and environmental safety, in addition to roles with both the Uniform and Textile Service Association and Ogden Environmental.
What Wheeler hasn’t managed to do during his tenure is amass the same collection of scandals that ultimately forced Pruitt to resign, though The Huffington Post reported in early October that Wheeler has repeatedly disseminated inflammatory content on his personal Facebook and Twitter accounts over the past five years.
Those interactions included liking a racist image of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama on Facebook, as well as retweeting an infamous “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist.
During his remarks at Tuesday’s event in Washington, Trump suggested that Wheeler could improve his chances of becoming the permanent EPA chief if he helped ease the process of getting a Texas harbor dredging project approved. Trump said the oil industry brought the dredging to his attention.
“Whatever you can do for the great state of Texas. This way they can bring the giant ships right in, fill them up, and they go out,” Trump told Wheeler.
“We will get that done, sir,” Wheeler responded.
While Wheeler promised to take steps to approve the dredging project, the Washington Post reported Wednesday that the Army Corps of Engineers, not the EPA, usually has finally say over such dredging projects.
Acting EPA head Andrew Wheeler says his mandate is to reduce regulatory barriers and level plaing field for US companies. Trump admin has trimmed 28 major regs for $1.6 B savings, with 49 more in pipeline for up to $100B more. #SHALEINSIGHT2018 pic.twitter.com/oRCcBWpS9y
— David Beard (@dbeardtdp) October 24, 2018
Wheeler frequently performs his duties as if his primary responsibility is to act as a cheerleader for the fossil fuel industry rather than as the nation’s top environmental regulator. Pruitt, Wheeler’s predecessor, also demonstrated this allegiance, preferring to advance industry interests to the detriment of environmental protection and public health.
At a major natural gas industry conference in Pittsburgh on Wednesday morning, Wheeler, in his keynote address, reiterated to the company officials in the audience that his mandate is to reduce regulatory barriers for U.S. companies.
The United States is “producing more energy than ever before thanks to the hard work and ingenuity of the people here in this room today,” Wheeler emphasized to the Pittsburgh audience.