EPA’s new (acting) leader: What do we know?

EPA Washington DC

The Environmental Protection Agency has been running under Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, formerly the deputy administrator, since Scott Pruitt resigned in July 2018. (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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A $43,000 soundproof phone booth, $1,560 pens, first-class travel, clashes with ethics rules, and numerous other ​reported​ practices defined Scott Pruitt’s short tenure as EPA administrator. Before President Trump appointed him to the position, Pruitt was attorney general for the state of Oklahoma.

According to the Oklahoma Office of the Attorney General, Pruitt “​was a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda​” and filed multiple lawsuits against the agency. Once at the helm of the EPA, Pruitt’s reign was overshadowed by questionable spending practices, and accusations of federal ethics violations as well as inappropriate professional behavior, as reported by numerous media outlets. Oh, and he rolled back several energy and environmental regulations, too.

Scott Pruitt, image by Gage Skidmore
Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the National Harbor in Maryland, on Feb. 25, 2017. (Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)

Pruitt’s actions culminated in a whopping ​13 federal investigations​ after only 17 months as administrator. He resigned in July 2018, citing the “​sizable toll​” of the “​unrelenting attacks​” on him and his family from the media and environmental advocates as reason for his departure, according to PBS News Hour’s Joey Mendolia and Daniel Bush.

Andrew Wheeler (EPA)

In Pruitt’s absence, former EPA Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler, has stepped in as acting administrator. While Pruitt made headlines nearly every week, Wheeler’s tenure has been noticeably quiet. However, Wheeler is continuing to deregulate the EPA and rolling back once strong environmental policies more quietly — and effectively — than his predecessor. His role as acting administrator begs a few questions:

1. Who is Andrew Wheeler?

According to his EPA biography, Andrew Wheeler was born in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1964. He became an Eagle Scout in high school, and ​received his undergraduate degree​ in English and biology from Case Western Reserve University. Wheeler continued his education at George Mason University where he ​received his MBA​, and then ​earned his law degree​ from Washington University in St. Louis.

2. How did Wheeler end up in the EPA?

This is actually ​not the first time​ Wheeler has worked for the EPA. Wheeler worked as a Special Assistant in the EPA’s Pollution Prevention and Toxics office during the George W. Bush administration. He joined Pruitt’s team as deputy director in 2017 when Pruitt was appointed administrator.

After Pruitt’s resignation, however, Wheeler expressed ​disinterest in the administrator position. In an interview with the Washington Examiner, Wheeler indicated “he had no interest in taking over his boss’s job. ‘I could have put my hat in the ring for administrator. I was not interested in that. I am still not interested in that,’ he said.”

3. What was he up to before working for the EPA?

Wheeler has been working in Washington for more than 20 years​, primarily advocating for the interests of the fossil fuel industry. Wheeler was the former chief of staff to Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe. Inhofe is considered Washington’s ​most prominent climate change denier​ (remember the guy who threw the snowball on the Senate floor? ​Yeah, that’s Inhofe), with Wheeler’s opinions of the environment and climate change closely mirroring that of his former boss’.

Wheeler has ​worked as a lobbyist​ for multiple natural resource corporations including some of the United States’ largest chemical, coal, and uranium companies. He lobbied for Energy Fuels Inc., the primary uranium company that ​supported the shrinking of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.​ According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the coal-mining company, Murray Energy, ​paid Wheeler’s consulting firm, Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting, ​over $300,000 per year from 2009 through 2017.

In 2010, Wheeler denounced the science presented by the scientists of the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change, claiming the IPCC “has functioned more as a political body than a scientific body.”

4. Why haven’t I heard too much about Wheeler?

Wheeler purposely avoids the spotlight, and prefers to do his work legally, yet behind closed doors. ​According to a report from the New York Times​, “Mr. Wheeler … avoids the limelight and has spent years effectively navigating the rules … ​His career was built around quietly and incrementally advancing the interests of the fossil-fuel industry, chiefly by weakening or delaying federal regulations.”

5. What is he going to do to the EPA, and to the environment?

“(Wheeler) knows much more about managing the agency and the technical side of the environmental statutes that EPA is charged with enforcing than Pruitt,” said Myron Ebell, head of the EPA transition team, in an interview with The Guardian. “Undoing (Barack) Obama’s regulatory onslaught at EPA is a key part of the president’s economic revival agenda, and therefore Wheeler will be a point man for Trump just as Pruitt was.”

Wheeler is going to push President Trump’s environmental agenda forward quickly and effectively. He will do so by staying within the boundaries of law and ethics, pursuing coal and chemical industry interests, and staying out of the limelight.​ ​Wheeler knows Washington, D.C., knows how environmental legislation and law work, and avoids the spotlight.

6. As a fan of a healthy environment, is there anything I can do?

Wheeler is competent and efficient. From working for climate change deniers and lobbying for mining companies and fossil fuel industries, he is a quiet, experienced, and formidable foe of the environment’s wellbeing.

However, a keyword in Wheeler’s job title is “​acting​.” President Trump still needs to officially nominate a new agency chief — one who must then be approved and confirmed by a Senate majority vote. This is a process that could take months, and well past November, after the midterm elections.

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