With scandal-plagued former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt finally out, Trump supporters and industry officials are eager to portray his replacement as a vast improvement — despite the fact that he is expected to pick up right where Pruitt left off on key policies.
Andrew Wheeler, who began his first official day as acting EPA administrator on Monday, has worked almost his entire career in Washington. He’s served as an EPA staffer, top Republican aide on Capitol Hill, and high-paid coal industry lobbyist.
Republicans point to Wheeler’s tenure as a senior staffer on Capitol Hill, where he occasionally worked with Democrats to pass legislation, as an indication that he will be more amenable to compromise than Pruitt. During this time, however, Wheeler primarily worked as a top aide to Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), one of the most anti-environment members in Congress, who did not cut many deals with Democrats.
On the policy front, there’s no evidence that Wheeler intends to break from Pruitt’s pro-industry, anti-environment agenda.
In his first tweet as acting administrator, Wheeler linked to a Wall Street Journal article about him that emphasized his plan to stick with Trump’s priorities, including “changing the Clean Power Plan, de-emphasizing climate-change initiatives and improving how the agency deals with polluters and environmental crises.”
— Acting Administrator Wheeler (@EPAAWheeler) July 9, 2018
In April 2009, Wheeler wrote in a tweet, “Climate alarmists refuse to debate or leave their facts at home when they do,” E&E News reported Monday. The tweet linked to an article in the American Thinker titled “No Wonder Climate Alarmists Refuse to Debate.”
As EPA administrator, Pruitt proposed launching a “red team, blue team” exercise to debate U.S. climate science. The “red team” would write a critique of the overwhelming scientific consensus, the “blue team” would rebut that critique, and so on. The idea was ultimately rejected by the White House.
Wheeler will be more dangerous in implementing Trump’s anti-environment agenda because he’s “a lot smarter than Pruitt” and “won’t get caught doing all the stupid things that Pruitt did,” according to Scott Edwards, co-director of the food and water justice project at Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based environmental group.
“We have a bigger uphill battle because it wasn’t the policies that drove Pruitt out; it was the other craziness. But we will absolutely keep up the pressure,” Edwards said Monday in an interview with ThinkProgress.
And in his new position as head of a regulatory agency, working in a bipartisan manner will no longer matter. Wheeler won’t need to pursue legislative compromises. His agency can act on rolling back important air and water rules and then deal with lawsuits and adverse court rulings when they come.
“Wheeler may have had to reach across the aisle to move a dirty energy agenda forward in Congress, but as EPA administrator, he won’t be constrained by needing to appear bipartisan,” Janet Redman, climate campaign director at Greenpeace USA, said Monday in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress.
Some Trump administration supporters share the assessment that Wheeler could be even more effective than Pruitt when it comes to implementing Trump’s policies at the EPA.
“Wheeler may never be President Donald Trump’s favorite or a conservative movement star, as Pruitt was, but he might prove better at implementation,” Myron Ebell, director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI)’s Center for Energy and Environment, wrote in an op-ed published Sunday by USA Today. Ebell is a climate science denier who served as the head of Trump’s EPA transition team.
On Friday, The Washington Post published a flattering portrait of Wheeler as a run-of-the-mill Washington “policy wonk” who will bring a semblance of normalcy back to the EPA.
In the article, Joseph Stanko, a partner at the industry law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth, hailed Wheeler as a regulatory expert. “If you’re a regulatory geek on environmental policy, this is going to be the golden age of wonks,” Stanko said.
The Trump administration is shifting “from a team stocked with high-profile personalities” to “one with a growing number of technocrats” such as Wheeler, the Washington Post reported. Republicans and Democrats told the newspaper that Wheeler “has far more energy and environmental policy experience than Pruitt and has shown a willingness to forge compromises with the other party.”
Please Washington Post do not normalize acting EPA head Andrew Wheeler as a "wonk." A "wonk" has expertise and respects science. Wheeler is a climate change denier and fossil fuel lobbyist. https://t.co/4jfQ1iicZj
— Andrew Bennett (@IRgetsreal) July 7, 2018
Frank Maisano, a longtime public relations specialist for the energy industry and a former press spokesperson for several Republican members of Congress, told NPR that “Wheeler is the opposite of very partisan.”
“Andy Wheeler is a person who operates inside the mechanics of the policy arguments,” said Maisano, who heads the energy communications practice at Bracewell, a top energy and lobbying firm.
Jeffrey Holmstead, a partner at Bracewell and a former acting administrator for air at the EPA during the George W. Bush administration, told Politico that he expects to see a “much more typical EPA with Andy there.”
“I just don’t think there’s going to be nearly as much press attention, not only in the controversy, but just in terms of the way EPA does its day to day business,” Holmstead said.
According to Greenpeace’s Redman, though, being a longtime Washington insider does not make Wheeler’s leadership of the EPA less concerning than Pruitt’s.
“The fact that he’s more familiar with the inner workings of the D.C.-policy making machine could make him even more effective than Pruitt at carrying out Trump’s extreme and dangerous pro-polluter, anti-people agenda,” Redman said. “So far, Wheeler hasn’t signaled any willingness to shift EPA away from the assaults on climate regulations waged by Pruitt and Trump.”
Working on behalf of Murray Energy, the nation’s largest privately owned coal company, Wheeler lobbied for the repeal of environmental regulations. In the spring of 2017, Wheeler joined his client, Murray Energy chief executive Robert Murray, for a visit with Energy Secretary Rick Perry to discuss Murray’s action plan for the Trump administration. At his confirmation hearing in November 2017 to be deputy administrator of the EPA, Wheeler admitted that he viewed Murray’s plan to roll back environmental regulations at the meeting with Perry.
Prior to joining the EPA, Wheeler also lobbied for the bailout of the coal industry on behalf of Murray Energy. “As a coal lobbyist, getting a bailout for the coal industry will likely be one of his top priorities at the EPA,” Edwards said.
After Wheeler won Senate confirmation in April to serve as deputy EPA administrator, Ebell, who won the “Speaks Truth To Power Award” from the far-right, climate science-denying Heartland Institute in 2017, described Wheeler as levelheaded and effective.
Wheeler’s “experience in how the EPA operates and his commitment to President Trump’s agenda to undo the regulatory onslaught of the previous administration will be valuable to his work managing and reforming the agency,” Ebell said.