Senate confirms former coal lobbyist as EPA’s deputy administrator, potential Pruitt replacement

Andrew Wheeler viewed as candidate for top job if embattled Scott Pruitt is forced out.

The Senate is expected to vote in the next few days on the nomination of Andrew Wheeler to serve as the deputy administrator of the EPA. CREDIT: screenshot/Senate EPW committee
The Senate is expected to vote in the next few days on the nomination of Andrew Wheeler to serve as the deputy administrator of the EPA. CREDIT: screenshot/Senate EPW committee

In a 53-45 vote, the Senate on Thursday confirmed Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, to be deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As recently as last summer, Wheeler worked as a lobbyist for Murray Energy, the largest privately-owned coal firm in the United States.

Despite Wheeler’s long history of advocating for the interests of the coal industry and embracing climate science denial, his nomination was initially met with relatively little resistance from Congress. Opposition to Wheeler has intensified over the past two weeks, however, as mounting scandals threaten EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s job security.

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Wheeler would serve as the acting leader of the EPA — should Pruitt be forced out — until a new administrator is confirmed by the Senate. And if Pruitt is fired or resigns, Wheeler is viewed as one of the top candidates to serve as the permanent head of the agency.

Prior to the Senate vote in favor of Wheeler, Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, warned that it’s possible Wheeler will be sworn in as acting administrator before he spends a day as deputy administrator, given all of Pruitt’s scandals.

Three Democrats, Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Joe Donnelly (IN), and Joe Manchin (WV), voted to approve Wheeler. Heitkamp and Manchin voted to approve Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator in February 2017. Donnelly did not vote on the Pruitt nomination.

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Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), the only Republican to reject Pruitt on policy grounds when he was nominated, voted in favor of confirming Wheeler, even though the two Trump appointees share the same guiding principle: rolling back environmental and public health protections disliked by industry.

On Thursday, prior to the vote, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) referred to Pruitt and Wheeler as the “dangerous duo.” With Wheeler’s confirmation, a former coal industry lobbyist will be joining Pruitt, a “complete flunky of the fossil fuel industry,” Whitehouse said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) speaks on the Senate floor on April 12, 2018 against the nomination of Andrew Wheeler to be deputy administrator of the EPA. Whitehouse pointed to Wheeler's work as a lobbyist for coal company Murray Energy. CREDIT: C-SPAN/screenshot
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) speaks on the Senate floor on April 12, 2018 against the nomination of Andrew Wheeler to be deputy administrator of the EPA. Whitehouse pointed to Wheeler's work as a lobbyist for coal company Murray Energy. CREDIT: C-SPAN/screenshot

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, strongly supported the nomination, noting that Wheeler served as a “consultant for a variety of environmental clients.” Wheeler, however, primarily worked as a lobbyist for fossil fuel and other polluting industries.

Prior to the Senate vote, Carper emphasized that much has changed at the EPA since Wheeler’s confirmation hearing in November 2017. Carper urged the Senate, before it voted on the nomination, to bring Wheeler back for questioning to find out how he would address Pruitt’s “ethical lapses.” The Republican majority declined to conduct a stricter vetting of Wheeler.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), speaking on the Senate floor, called on Trump to withdraw Wheeler’s nomination over his background as a fossil fuel lobbyist and views on climate change. The senator emphasized he sees nothing in Wheeler’s background that instills confidence he would serve as a strong protector of the nation’s environment.

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Wheeler has long questioned the mainstream 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 2010, Wheeler criticized the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading scientific authority on global warming, writing in a blog post that it has “has functioned more as a political body than a scientific body.”

Last May, Wheeler hosted campaign fundraisers for two members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works — Barrasso 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.

Andrew Wheeler, seated on the far right, attended a March 2017 meeting between Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray about promoting policies to benefit the finances of the coal industry. Wheeler was serving as a lobbyist for Murray Energy at the time. CREDIT: SIMON EDELMAN
Andrew Wheeler, seated on the far right, attended a March 2017 meeting between Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray about promoting policies to benefit the finances of the coal industry. Wheeler was serving as a lobbyist for Murray Energy at the time. CREDIT: SIMON EDELMAN

Wheeler previously managed the energy and natural resources practice at the law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels where he lobbied for 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.

While he lobbied for Murray Energy, the company paid millions in fines and penalties for contaminating waterways in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania with coal slurry and discharge, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. In 2010, Murray Energy contaminated the Captina Creek in Ohio for the fourth time since 2000, with coal slurry, the environmental group said.

Wheeler de-registered himself as a Murray lobbyist in an August 11, 2017 filing with Congress.

Wheeler also represented Celanese Corporation, a chemical company that manufactures a number of toxic substances, including formaldehyde. According to Wheeler’s bio at his consulting job, he’s also currently the vice president of the Washington Coal Club, an association for coal industry lobbyists.

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“If President Trump picked a top tobacco lobbyist to run the CDC, most Americans would demand the Senate reject that nomination,” Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said Thursday in a statement. “Putting Mr. Wheeler in charge at The EPA is no different. He’s spent his entire career opposing virtually every aspect of the EPA’s mission to protect public health and the environment, and will continue his life’s work from the inside.”

Before he joined Faegre Baker Daniels in 2009, Wheeler spent 14 years as a staffer for Inhofe, including as chief counsel for the senator on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee. In February 2015, Inhofe, one of the most anti-environment senators in Washington, created a stir when he appeared with a snowball on the Senate floor, purportedly to demonstrate that climate change is a hoax.

Wheeler also gave $1,000 to the Trump Victory fund, a joint campaign committee that worked to elect Trump and other Republicans in 2016, according to The Intercept.

At Wheeler’s Senate confirmation hearing last November, Whitehouse said Robert Murray “has said that he has a three-page plan that is being implemented by Scott Pruitt at the EPA. He said they’re already through the first page.”

Wheeler acknowledged seeing a copy of Murray’s “action plan” earlier this year. Murray said he provided the plan to Trump in January 2017 to help the struggling coal industry. “I did not work on that [plan] or have a copy of that memo,” Wheeler said. “I saw it briefly at the beginning of year but don’t have possession of it. I looked at it.”

Whitehouse, in response to Murray Energy’s action plan, said the American people “are entitled to an EPA that is not following coal companies’ three-page plans, but is following wherever the best interests of the American people lead.”