Top coal lobbyist could quickly become EPA chief, thanks to Pruitt’s scandals

Democrats are calling for a full Senate vote on Andrew Wheeler's nomination to be delayed.

President Trump named Andrew Wheeler as acting EPA administrator on July 5, 2018 after accepting Scott Pruitt's resignation from the position. CREDIT: screenshot/Senate EPW committee
President Trump named Andrew Wheeler as acting EPA administrator on July 5, 2018 after accepting Scott Pruitt's resignation from the position. CREDIT: screenshot/Senate EPW committee

Concern about President Donald Trump’s nominee to serve as the No. 2 official at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has intensified as lawmakers sense Administrator Scott Pruitt’s tenure is nearing an end.

The nomination of Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and climate science denier, to be EPA’s deputy administrator was approved by a Senate committee in January. The full Senate is expected to vote on his nomination to be deputy administrator in the coming days.

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Considering the long list of alleged ethics violations and misconduct facing Pruitt, the EPA could very well be without a permanent administrator any day now. Many Washington observers are surprised that Pruitt still has his job. But he has yet to fall out of favor with Trump, who has been lobbied heavily by conservatives to keep Pruitt on as administrator.

With concern growing that Wheeler could be next in line to take over the EPA, Democrats are calling for a full Senate vote on Wheeler’s nomination to be delayed.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), a leader in the campaign to oust Pruitt, said Wednesday at a press conference on Capitol Hill that there needs to be a more “thorough vetting process” for Wheeler in case Pruitt gets fired or resigns in the face of allegations of ethics violations and misconduct.

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Wheeler would serve as the acting leader of the agency — should Pruitt be forced out — until a new administrator was confirmed by the Senate.

At that point, if Pruitt is ousted, “Wheeler is, in fact, the administrator,” Udall said. “That is a very, very serious problem.”

The senator said he will ask that Wheeler go through a vetting process similar to if he was taking over the EPA. “And you hope we can get some Republican support on that,” he added.

Even with Wheeler waiting in the wings, Udall hopes Pruitt isn’t heading the EPA much longer. “You would expect that someone like President Trump who talked over and over on the campaign trail about draining the swamp, running honest government, producing government for the people would see that this guy is a swamp creature and you’ve got to get him out of there,” he said. “But he hasn’t done that.”

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Environmentalists are concerned that Wheeler will be viewed more positively than Pruitt, even though their beliefs are similarly radical. They fear Wheeler was overshadowed during his confirmation hearing by another Trump nominee, Kathleen Hartnett White, and has continued to fly under the radar since. Hartnett White failed to gain enough support to get confirmed to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

“His hearing was with climate change denier Kathleen Harnett White, who created a major distraction with her conspiracy theories and lack of understanding of science,” League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski wrote in a letter sent to senators on Tuesday.

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.

Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, pointed out that Wheeler’s confirmation could install one of Robert Murray’s lobbyists at the helm of an agency tasked with environmental protection. “He may be worse than Pruitt,” O’Donnell wrote in a tweet.

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While Wheeler 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.

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.

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

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.”

Despite an ability to avoid inflammatory statements at his hearing, Wheeler could potentially be even more dangerous than Pruitt for the environment, Keith Gaby, senior communications director for the Environmental Defense Fund, wrote Tuesday in a blog post.

“His working life has been spent defending the interests of the nation’s largest polluters, and his experience in Washington has included stints on Capitol Hill,” Gaby said.

Two Democrats, Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (ND) and Joe Manchin (WV), have announced they will vote to approve Wheeler. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), the only Republican to reject Pruitt on policy grounds when he was nominated, also reportedly plans to vote in favor of installing Wheeler as the agency’s second-in-charge.

Last May, 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.

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.