With a top coal lobbyist stepping in to serve as acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), few people are expecting Scott Pruitt’s resignation to slow down the Trump administration’s efforts to deal a knock-out blow to the agency’s ability to protect the environment.
President Trump on Thursday named EPA deputy administrator Andrew Wheeler — whose beliefs on environmental protection are as radical as Pruitt’s — to serve as acting administrator of the agency.
Wheeler previously managed the energy and natural resources practice at the law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels where he lobbied for coal giant Murray Energy; CEO Robert Murray was a major donor to the Trump presidential campaign. Over an eight-year period, Wheeler earned more than $3 million lobbying for Murray Energy.
Environmental and public health advocates are already urging senators not to confirm Wheeler if Trump ends up nominating him to serve as EPA administrator.
“A coal lobbyist dogged by ethical questions like Andrew Wheeler is not the person to do that,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said Thursday in response to Pruitt’s resignation. “Senators must confirm a nominee who will hold the health and safety of American families in higher regard than the profits of big polluters.”
Trump signaled Thursday afternoon that it wasn’t Pruitt’s anti-environment views that led to his demise. The president tweeted that “Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this.”
Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), chairman of the committee that oversees the EPA, emphasized in a statement Thursday that under Trump, the EPA had returned to its “original mission of protecting America’a air, water, and land.”
Under Pruitt, the EPA “rolled back punishing regulations that were hurting American workers and stifling our economy,” Barrasso said.
“I look forward to the confirmation of the next head of the EPA. In the meantime, I know Assistant Administrator Andrew Wheeler is well prepared to continue the progress already made under President Trump,” the Wyoming senator added.
Barrasso will manage the confirmation hearing for Pruitt’s successor, as long as Trump nominates a replacement before the end of the year. If the Democrats take control of the Senate, Wheeler or another candidate with similar pro-industry views likely would not be able to win confirmation.
During his confirmation hearing to be the EPA’s deputy administrator, Wheeler was overshadowed by another Trump nominee, Kathleen Hartnett White — Wheeler’s nomination was therefore under less scrutiny. Due in large part to Hartnett White’s extreme views on air pollution and environmental protection, she failed to gain enough support to get confirmed to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Whether it’s Wheeler or someone else, Brandy Doyle, campaign manager for social change network CREDO, said her group has no doubt Trump will appoint another “fossil fuel industry stooge as Pruitt’s replacement.”
“In the meantime, acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, will undoubtedly continue Pruitt’s legacy of subverting the agency’s mission by putting corporate profits ahead of public health and the environment,” Doyle said. “But we will continue to fight back against whoever is next in line to rip up our environmental protections, and we will continue to win.”
In 2017, just months before being nominated as deputy administrator, Wheeler was still lobbing for Murray Energy, a major coal mining company that has paid millions in fines and penalties for contaminating waterways in Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania with coal slurry and discharge.
In his role as a Murray Energy lobbyist, Wheeler also attended a meeting with Energy Secretary Rick Perry in March 2017 where Robert Murray presented Perry with an action plan that would directly benefit his coal company.
Later in the year, Perry submitted a proposal to federal regulators that would provide subsidies to coal-fired and nuclear plants. In a unanimous vote, the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission rejected Perry’s proposal.
Before he joined Faegre Baker Daniels in 2009, Wheeler spent 14 years as a staffer for Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), including as chief counsel for the senator on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee. If confirmed, he would be joining other former Inhofe staffers who have filled top positions at the agency.
Wheeler has long questioned the mainstream scientific consensus on climate change. In 2006, while working for the Senate environment committee, Wheeler suggested that the Earth might actually be going through a “cooling phase.”
In May 2017, Wheeler hosted campaign fundraisers for two members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works — Sens. John Barrasso (R-WY) and James Inhofe (R-OK) — who voted to approve his nomination in February. Wheeler was first rumored to be chosen for the EPA in March 2017.
Political observers are expecting Wheeler to be in his new role as acting EPA administrator for an extended period. With a slim 51-49 majority, Republicans will have trouble confirming Pruitt’s successor prior to the midterms elections in November.