By Carolyn Kormann
July 12, 2018 - Andrew Wheeler, the former deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, ascended to the top office on Monday, replacing Scott Pruitt, whom President Trump forced out last week. Pruitt’s plague of scandals (the security detail, the firings) and absurdities (the mattress, the moisturizer) had finally become untenable—at last count, he was the subject of thirteen federal investigations.
Wheeler, at first glance, is not much like Pruitt, an ambitious politician who expected to be treated like a king. Pruitt is fond of pour-over coffee; Wheeler collects Coca-Cola memorabilia. Pruitt arrived in Washington from Oklahoma, where he served, most recently, as attorney general. (He returned frequently, at taxpayers’ expense; he directed his staff to find reasons for the trips, according to congressional testimony from his former deputy chief.) Wheeler has spent more than eighteen years working for the federal government. What the two men share are close ties to the fossil-fuel industry, a long record of working in opposition to environmental regulations, and a desire, with Trump, to destroy Obama’s climate-policy legacy. Wheeler, however, will likely be more effective in implementing Trump’s agenda. Pruitt’s fast and dirty efforts to roll back E.P.A. rules, with little concern for governmental procedure, left his efforts open to legal challenges; six have already been struck down in court. Wheeler might be slower to make changes, but many fear that his new rules are more likely to last.
Wheeler, who is fifty-five, came to Washington in 1991, to work at the E.P.A.’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics under George H. W. Bush. He moved next to Capitol Hill, where he led the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the E.P.A., and served as an aide to Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, a prominent climate denialist in Congress. In 2009, Wheeler became a lobbyist with the K-Street consulting firm FaegreBD, representing corporations such as Energy Fuels, the uranium company that lobbied the Trump Administration to reduce the size of Bears Ears National Monument (Energy Fuels denied significant involvement in the decision to shrink the monument), and Murray Energy, the largest privately-owned coal company in the country. While Wheeler has promised to avoid conflicts of interest by recusing himself from decisions involving his old clients, critics say that it would be easy for him to break that promise. The E.P.A. ethics office that he oversees could fail to enforce his commitment, or—as he points out in a recusal statement that he issued on July 2nd, three days before Pruitt was fired—the ethics office can always issue him a waiver or regulatory exemption.
Wheeler has long been a climate denialist, fighting any policies that would establish mandatory carbon limits. In 2003, in a long speech on the Senate floor opposing a climate bill put forward by Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman, Inhofe famously said that “man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” Wheeler defended his boss’s position for years, criticizing the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and casting doubt on the science. (In 2006, he said in an interview with E&E News, “the fact is that the climate changes regularly.”) On Friday, however, in an interview with the Washington Post, Wheeler changed his position—or, at least, chose his words carefully. He said that he believes climate change is real and that “people have an impact on the climate.” (During his Senate confirmation hearings for deputy administrator last November, he expressed more uncertainty. “I believe man has an impact on the climate,” he said. “But what is not completely understood is what the impact is.”) John Cook, a climate-change communications researcher at George Mason University categorizes this kind of statement as “doubt-mongering misinformation,” Republicans’ latest argument, he told me, to support climate inaction. (Previously, Wheeler and others used the “explicit misinformation” argument, Cook said. “It seems to be on its way out.”) Wheeler now claims, as he told the Post, that he has “always deferred to career scientists,” and will continue to do so. In his first email to E.P.A. employees as acting administrator last week, he wrote, “I look forward to working alongside all of you to continue our collective goal of protecting public health and the environment.”
For political appointees, leading an agency of scientists and others who are committed to combatting climate change presents a challenge. When Trump appointed the former Navy pilot and Oklahoma congressman Jim Bridenstine to run nasa last year, people were outraged. As recently as 2013, Bridenstine had stated that global warming was not happening. Last November, at his confirmation hearing, Senator Brian Schatz, of Hawaii, asked him about his views on climate. Bridenstine conceded that humans were contributors to global warming, but he would not say they were the primary cause. Then, in May, in a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, Senator Schatz asked him again. He said his views had evolved. He not only acknowledged that humans are the leading cause but spoke at length about the importance of nasa’s extensive climate-change research, adding that he would make sure it continued to receive all necessary funding.
Schatz told me that he had had several conversations with Bridenstine and that he believed the nasa chief had simply changed his mind after listening to what nasa’s scientists had to say. Schatz did not discount the role of embarrassment “when you walk into a place where everyone’s looking at you like you’re the least knowledgeable person in the room.” Pruitt, who was viewed unfavorably, fearfully, or worse by career employees, has “become a cautionary tale and a poster boy for having ignorant views,” Schatz said. “I think there are enough people who watch that happen and don’t want to be ridiculed in the same way. I don’t mean politically embarrassed, but personally embarrassed.”
Wheeler told the Post that, over the last few months, while serving as deputy administrator, he spent time talking with career scientists and other employees, something his predecessor did not want to do. But even if Wheeler becomes more responsive to the scientists in the agency and continues to evolve on climate change, he’s almost certainly not going to acknowledge the foolishness and danger of Pruitt’s proposed climate-policy rollbacks anytime soon. His anti-regulatory arguments were never made entirely on scientific grounds. As a congressional aide and lobbyist, he pushed an economic argument against fighting climate change—that increased emissions regulations would steeply increase energy prices and hurt the American people—protecting the interests of the energy industry, basically.
Wheeler must be aware that such an argument is now nearly impossible to make, and that fossil-fuel business can no longer continue as usual. According to his LinkedIn profile, which still lists Faegre BD, the lobbying firm, as his employer, he advised energy and mining corporations “on comprehensive legislative, regulatory and operational strategies to best prepare for a carbon-constrained future.” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, a vocal proponent of progressive climate policy, appealed to Wheeler’s economic pragmatism in what was, perhaps, a surprising show of support for the new administrator. In a statement he sent to NPR, he expressed optimism that Wheeler would remain “the honest broker we knew” from their time working together on the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee. “Clear-eyed leadership at E.P.A. could help prevent the carbon bubble we are headed for as fossil-fuel reserves end up stranded and potentially trillions of dollars get wiped off energy company books,” he said.
In Friday’s Post interview, Wheeler indicated that he is now relying on a legal argument to justify his rollback of the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. “It was outside the four corners of the Clean Air Act,” Wheeler said. “I think as we move forward on a potential replacement,” for the plan, “you’re going to see us taking a hard look at what the act says and the authorities the act gives us, and we’ll put something forward that follows the law.” And while he criticized the E.P.A.’s landmark “endangerment finding,” in 2009, which officially named carbon dioxide a pollutant, subject to E.P.A. regulation under the Clean Air Act, he also confirmed to the Post that he considers it “settled law,” and would not try and withdraw or suspend it—something that Robert Murray (the coal executive who owns Murray Energy, his former client) and other conservatives have advocated.
In the end, of course, Wheeler works for Trump and is subject to his moods and whims. Trump was reportedly unhappy that he had to fire Pruitt, whom he long favored. His relationship with Wheeler might already be tainted by comments that Wheeler made in early 2016, while supporting Marco Rubio’s candidacy. In a scathing six-point critique of Trump that he posted to his personal Facebook page (and has since deleted), he called the President a “bully,” adding that “this alone should disqualify him from the White House.” But within a few months, after Trump had laid out his “energy dominance” agenda, focussed on supporting domestic fossil-fuel development, Wheeler converted, and became one of two volunteer energy and environment consultants to Trump’s campaign. Trump will eventually have to decide whether he wants to keep Wheeler as the permanent administrator (he would have to face another round of Senate hearings) or appoint someone else. In the meantime, Wheeler walks a fine line between his boss and the scientists and career employees he leads. For the time being, he says that he will work to implement the President’s agenda. As Trump said of Wheeler on Thursday: “He is a very environmental person."
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