By Jack Torry and Michael Pittman
July 8, 2018 - The country’s new Environmental Protection Agency chief is an Ohio native who insists he’s more than a former coal lobbyist.
“One of my clients was a coal company,” Andrew R. Wheeler said last month in an interview with the Hamilton News Journal. “I had over 20 clients, and a coal company was one of my clients.”
“I get frustrated with the media when they report I was coal lobbyist,” he said. “Yes, I represented a coal company, but I also represented a cheese company. I represented a lot of different businesses, a lot of different interests.”
Wheeler, 53, who grew up in Butler County and graduated from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, will at least temporarily replace Scott Pruitt, who was pushed out Thursday under a cloud of ethical questions. President Donald Trump’s choice as acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a former adviser to the late Republican Sen. George V. Voinovich and has provoked intense opposition from environmentalists who say he wants to dismantle federal protections for clean air and water.
“The line on Wheeler from people in the know is that he’s essentially Scott Pruitt’s ideological twin—but that his many years as a Washington insider have endowed him with a political savvy that Pruitt sorely lacks,” said a piece on the Natural Resources Defense Council’s web site by Jeff Turrentine, culture & politics columnist. “He has more friends than enemies in Washington and seems unlikely to shoot himself in the foot or otherwise self-destruct. In the end, that might actually make Wheeler even more dangerous than Pruitt—not less.”
Wheeler represented Murray Energy Corporation, which calls itself the largest coal mining company in America. The company’s CEO, Robert E. Murray, vigorously fought the Obama administration’s attempts to reduce carbon emissions and staunchly backed Trump.
“I have no doubt that Andy will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda,” Trump tweeted Thursday after breaking the news about Pruitt’s departure. “We have made tremendous progress and the future of the EPA is very bright!”
In a statement, Wheeler said he is “both humbled and honored to take on this new responsibility at the same agency where I started my career over 25 years ago.” He worked at the EPA under President George H.W. Bush.
Wheeler served as Pruitt’s deputy during a time when the EPA has attempted to scrap the Obama administration’s Clean Power plan, designed to discourage utility companies from relying on coal-fired plants.
During his confirmation hearing in April, Wheeler was asked about his views on climate change.
“I believe that man has an impact on the climate,” he said, “but what’s not completely understood is what the impact is.”
If Trump taps Wheeler to become permanent EPA administrator, the move would ignite an intense confirmation battle in the Senate. The Senate narrowly confirmed Wheeler as deputy EPA administrator, 53 to 45, with Republican Rob Portman supporting him and Democrat Sherrod Brown opposing him.
Brown said he hopes “that as an Ohioan Wheeler will protect Lake Erie and the Ohio jobs that depend on it, but I have serious concerns about his coziness with the big energy special interests he is supposed to oversee.”
By contrast, Senate Republican candidate Jim Renacci, who is challenging Brown in November, said “Congrats, an Ohio native who will now be serving as acting administrator of the EPA.”
“Given his decades of public service, including time at the EPA, his dedication to the American people will be greatly appreciated in this new interim role,” Renacci said.
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