Just one year ago, Andrew Wheeler worked as one of the coal industry’s most powerful lobbyists, serving as coal baron Bob Murray’s Capitol Hill muscle, challenging environmental regulations and casting doubt on the science behind climate change.
On Monday, Wheeler will take over at the Environmental Protection Agency, after Administrator Scott Pruitt’s sudden resignation Thursday amid a five-month avalanche of ethics and legal controversies.
Wheeler’s ascension, while expected to return stability to the scandal-struck EPA, demonstrates how the administration secured the future of its radical plan to dismantle the nation’s leading public health agency at the behest of the industries it regulates, amid the distractions of Pruitt’s humiliating final months as the agency’s second-shortest-serving administrator in history.
“He will be potentially considerably more effective, both because you don’t have the daily drama that you’ve had for the last several months and because Andy knows how the system works,” said Stan Meiburg, a former acting deputy EPA administrator who spent 39 years at the agency. “He could be more effective for the administration in achieving its policy objectives.”
Pruitt left behind a considerable legacy of halting critical regulations, reshaping the EPA’s science advisory boards and provoking an exodus of talent from the agency that could take decades to reverse. Yet roughly one-third of the regulatory rollbacks Pruitt attempted were halted by legal challenges ― setbacks widely attributed to his brash style and overeagerness to antagonize environmentalists. Still, he proposed some of the most drastic changes to the agency in his final months.
In April he proposed gutting auto emissions standards, which would essentially eliminate the only remaining major federal rule to curb greenhouse gases. Weeks later, he put forward a “transparency” rule that would dramatically limit the public health studies the EPA may use when writing regulations. By June, Pruitt kicked the effort up a notch, issuing a formal notice to solicit ideas on how the agency performs regulatory cost-benefit analyses, in a move widely seen as a giveaway to industry polluters, and proposed a regulation to replace a landmark Obama-era rule protecting drinking water for 117 million Americans.
By taking these steps as formal rulemaking changes rather than executive actions, the processes will continue in his absence, likely with far less of the scrutiny that his notoriety invited.
The EPA did not respond to requests for comment and an interview with Wheeler.
“We have full confidence in acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler to carry President Trump’s important EPA reform agenda forward,” said Myron Ebell, a veteran climate change denier who led Trump’s EPA transition team.
Two right-wing operatives who run separate climate denial blogs shared the same reaction to Wheeler’s promotion: “Winning.”
Wheeler’s nomination to be the EPA’s deputy administrator came with little fanfare last October, announced just days after a gunman mowed down 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas, in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
In November at his confirmation hearing before the Senate committee on environment and public works, he repeatedly dodged questions about climate change and critical environmental policies, couching his responses in fluent legalese and touting his four-year record serving as an agency staffer under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Wheeler skated by on his poise and familiar Beltway rhetoric as Kathleen Hartnett-White, the president’s pick to lead the Council on Environmental Quality, flamed out next to him, stammering over questions of basic science. The committee advanced his nomination to the full Senate for confirmation, but the vote didn’t take place before the end of the legislative session, and his nomination was returned to the Senate panel.
In February, just before the committee voted again, The Intercept published a report detailing fundraisers that Wheeler held for Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.), his former boss, in May. The Sierra Club called on the Senate panel to delay the vote and open an investigation.
But that didn’t deter Republicans, who held the vote on schedule, even as many federal employees in Washington delayed morning activities by two hours because of snow. Democrats put up little opposition, though the nomination advanced without a single one of their votes.
The same month, the White House withdrew Hartnett-White’s nomination as Republican support waned amid a tireless campaign by Democrats and environmentalists to paint her as unhinged, highlighting past statements from her crediting coal with abolishing slavery and suggesting increased carbon dioxide emissions were good for the planet.
Wheeler, meanwhile, plodded along quietly. Later that month, a state air pollution regulator accused Wheeler of “bullying” and “intimidating” the regulator’s nonpartisan organization in 2005, when Wheeler served as a top aide to Inhofe and counsel to the Senate environment and public works committee. The regulator said Wheeler demanded tax records as part of a “witch hunt” to punish his organization for opposing a bill Inhofe proposed that would have enshrined climate change denialism into air pollution law.
In April, as Pruitt’s scandals began to mount, Democrats asked for more time to question Wheeler, since, as Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) put it, a full-chamber vote on his nomination would be “a shadow confirmation vote for the next administrator of the EPA.” Yet the Senate confirmed his nomination with more support than Pruitt received in February 2017, with the votes of three Democrats ― Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.) ― and of Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the only Republican who had opposed Pruitt.
This is like rearranging deck chairs on the environmental Titanic.
Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch
“There are going to be a number of senators with big regrets when all is said and done that they gave only lip-service opposition to Andrew Wheeler,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of the environmental group Clean Air Watch. “This is like rearranging deck chairs on the environmental Titanic.”
Last year, Wheeler served as a lobbyist for Energy Fuels Resources, a uranium mining company with operations just outside Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Last July, Wheeler and a top executive from the firm met with top Interior Department officials to discuss Bears Ears the same week Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended that President Donald Trump dramatically shrink the monument, according to agency calendars.
Pruitt’s flashy efforts to bolster the coal industry came after repeated meetings with Murray, the outspoken mining magnate who runs Murray Energy. Wheeler, by contrast, worked for him until mid-2017, helping deliver the Trump administration a so-called action plan that included a federal bailout of coal-fired plants, the repeal of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan and a challenge to the 2009 EPA endangerment finding that determined carbon dioxide pollution poses a risk to public health.
The White House announced its plan to use an obscure Cold War–era law to prop up coal and nuclear plants in June. The EPA began the process of rolling back the Clean Power Plan in October and is now workshopping a draft of a rule to replace it with a dramatically weaker alternative — proof of the lasting power of the endangerment finding, which compels the agency to regulate carbon dioxide emissions in some form.
That could change under Wheeler. In March 2010, he accused the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of blurring “the lines between science and advocacy” and functioning “more as a political body than a scientific body,” suggesting the EPA could “reconsider its endangerment finding without almost exclusively relying upon the IPCC.” The remarks, previously posted to his former lobbying firm’s website, appear to have been deleted.
At Wheeler’s November confirmation hearing, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate environment and public works committee, said Wheeler assured him privately that he “views EPA’s legal authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, which is based on the endangerment finding, as settled law.”
But Wheeler evaded questions about his belief in the overwhelming scientific consensus that the planet is warming primarily because of emissions from burning fossil fuels, industrial farming and deforestation. He deployed the same sort of ambiguous rhetoric used by much of the Trump administration, many other Republicans and Charles and David Koch.
“I believe that man has an impact on the climate, but what’s not completely understood is what the impact is,” Wheeler said at his confirmation hearing when aggressively questioned about the findings of the federal government’s latest climate report.
And things change quickly. Just a week ago, he abruptly gave a series interviews to a handful of mainstream and conservative-leaning news outlets. He repeatedly made the point that he had no plans to take Pruitt’s job.
“No one feels great about [Wheeler], but no one thinks he will be as corrupt or disrespectful as Pruitt,” said an EPA staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. The staffer said Wheeler “doesn’t seem the leader type” and described him as “really awkward.”
“He seems to hate the spotlight,” the staffer said.
In a short email to EPA staff, Wheeler thanked Pruitt for “his service and leadership” and struck a conciliatory tone.
“I am both humbled and honored to take on this new responsibility at the same agency where I started my career over 25 years ago,” he wrote in the email, which HuffPost obtained. “I look forward to working alongside all of you to continue our collective goal of protecting public health and the environment on behalf of the American people.”
Wheeler would need to be confirmed in another Senate vote to become the permanent administrator, according to Bob Perciasepe, a former deputy EPA administrator who served for five months as acting administrator in 2013. But the acting rules are complex and riddled with loopholes that give the White House leeway over who commands a federal agency in the absence of its Senate-approved chief. It seems unlikely the administration will push for a hasty EPA vote as it attempts to confirm the next Supreme Court justice before the midterm elections in November.
“This is a guy who shares all the ideology of Pruitt, except his style is totally different,” O’Donnell said. “He’s not a flamboyant, backslapping politician with a taste for scandal. He’s a relatively quiet, behind-the-scenes guy who will try to permit the kinds of industries the agency regulates to reshape the rules.”