President Donald Trump officially nominated Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, to be the permanent administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Wednesday. Wheeler was confirmed by the Senate last April to serve as deputy administrator, but he will have to be confirmed again in order to officially lead the agency.
Senate Republicans appear eager to rush that process through the chamber. They have already scheduled Wheeler’s confirmation hearing for next week on January 16, despite an ongoing partial government shutdown that has left most EPA employees furloughed. With Republicans in control of the Senate, Wheeler is expected to face little trouble on his path to confirmation.
Wheeler took over as acting EPA administrator six months ago when the scandal-plagued Scott Pruitt resigned from the agency’s top spot. Pruitt was facing more than a dozen investigations at the time of his resignation, including inquiries into the frequency and cost of his travel, his spending on a secure phone booth in his office, and the questionable spending on his security detail.
When Wheeler took over as acting EPA administrator last summer, Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, sent him a letter urging him to restore the agency’s mission by remedying some of Pruitt’s most egregious actions and proposals.
“He has not done so,” Carper said Wednesday in a statement. “I’ve been very disappointed in Acting Administrator Wheeler’s performance with regard to making progress on those issues and to charting a new course for the agency’s future.”
The upheaval in the agency’s top spot, however, didn’t slow down the implementation of the administration’s anti-environment agenda. Wheeler has pushed forward many of Pruitt’s plans to dismantle environmental protections.
And after watching him in action over the past few months, environmental groups fear Wheeler could deliver even greater gifts to polluters if confirmed as permanent administrator.
The Sierra Club calculated that in his first 100 days as acting EPA administrator, Wheeler took action to harm public health and the environment on average every three days, from rolling back protections from methane, mercury pollution, and toxic chemicals; to gutting the Clean Power Plan and clean car standards; to firing the head of the Office of Children’s Health.
“There shouldn’t be a single day when the administrator of the EPA schemes with corporate polluters to attack public health, but Wheeler has made it a regular habit because he is unable to give up his corporate polluter ties,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement.
Meanwhile, fossil fuel groups are looking forward to forging an even closer relationship with Wheeler.
The American Petroleum Institute (API), the most powerful lobbying group for the oil and gas industry in Washington, welcomed the news of Wheeler’s nomination, explaining that it has worked with the acting administrator to cut emissions and deliver oil and gas to customers.
“API supported Wheeler’s nomination for EPA deputy administrator and if confirmed as administrator, we believe he will work to further a smarter, science-based regulatory agenda that encourages robust U.S. energy investments that ensure America has the energy it needs now and in the future to increase national security, grow the economy and further environmental progress,” the lobbying group said in an email to ThinkProgress.
Prior to becoming the EPA’s deputy administrator, Wheeler worked at the law and lobbying firm Faegre Baker Daniels, where his clients included coal producer Murray Energy, led by Trump supporter Bob Murray.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Wednesday that “Acting Administrator Wheeler has done an outstanding job leading EPA and is well qualified to run the agency on a permanent basis. I will work with committee members to get him confirmed.”
During Wheeler’s time at the EPA, he has not shied away from proposing numerous regulatory rollbacks that would weaken many of the nation’s environmental and public health protections. Last August, for example, Wheeler released a proposed rule that would gut fuel-efficiency and tailpipe pollution standards for cars. The proposal also seeks to revoke California’s ability to maintain its own automobile standards at the more protective levels set in 2012.
Later that month, Wheeler announced a proposed replacement for the Clean Power Plan that would let states decide how, or even whether, to limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. The EPA’s own analysis concluded that this proposed rule would lead to up to 1,400 premature deaths annually by 2030.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has EPA oversight responsibilities, said Wheeler’s record of environmental rollbacks leaves him questioning the nominee’s ability to serve as permanent agency administrator.
“If he intends to adequately fulfill the mission of the EPA — to protect human health and the environment — a drastic change in course is needed,” Pallone said in a statement. “Wheeler might not be the cartoon villain that Scott Pruitt was as administrator, but he’s no Captain Planet.”