Andrew Wheeler, the newly appointed acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), turned on a charm offensive as he tried to turn a new page at the agency on Wednesday following the resignation of scandal-plagued Scott Pruitt last Friday.
Wheeler’s introductory speech to an overflow audience of EPA staff and the press at EPA headquarters in Washington, D. C., outlined his priorities and promised more openness and dialog at the agency. EPA spokesman John Konkus added in a statement that Wheeler “puts a premium on transparency” and that Wheeler will bring a change in approach and tone at the agency.
However, some critics charge that Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, is reading from the same page as Pruitt in his desire to weaken environmental regulations in the name of regulatory reform. Those critics also note that Wheeler will more effectively achieve those goals since he may not be burdened by scandals.
In his speech, Wheeler claimed that the agency has “made tremendous progress” over the past year and a half under Pruitt by accelerating the remediation of Superfund pollution sites, financing critical investments to improve the nation’s water infrastructure, enhancing air quality, and improving how chemicals are reviewed for safety, among other accomplishments.
“We will continue to press forward on all of these fronts,” he added. “We’re also restoring the rule of law, reining in federal regulatory overreach, and refocusing EPA on its core responsibilities. As a result, the economy is booming and economic optimism is surging.”
Focus on Three Things
When President Trump called on Wheeler last week to lead the agency, Trump said that Wheeler’s focus should be on three key areas, the new EPA leader explained in his speech. “[Trump] said, ‘Clean up the air, clean up the water, and provide regulatory relief.’ I think we can do all three of those things at the same time.”
Wheeler said that the agency needs to provide more regulatory “certainty” to businesses. With that need in mind, Wheeler said that he is setting a new goal for the agency to decide all permitting requests, whether for or against, on a 6-month time frame.
He also called for quicker decisions on enforcement actions. “I’m not advocating for letting people off the hook or reducing fines. Rather, I’m advocating for making enforcement decisions in a timely and consistent manner. Accomplishing this will dramatically improve our relationship with American businesses and take away a lot of the criticisms that [are] lobbed at the agency.”
In his speech, Wheeler also referred to the problems facing the agency in the wake of Pruitt’s departure. “I understand firsthand the stress that goes along with a change in management,” he told EPA staff. “I will try to minimize the stress that you all deal with on a daily basis as employees here at the agency.”
Not Ashamed of His Work for a Coal Company
Wheeler also confronted head-on the criticism that he has received for working as a lobbyist for Murray Energy, a coal company. Wheeler said it was just one among more than 20 clients he worked with through his work at the Faegre Baker Daniels consulting firm.
“I did work for a coal company, and I’m not at all ashamed of the work I did for the coal company,” said Wheeler, who began his career in 1991 as a special assistant in EPA’s pollution prevention and toxics office. After working on Capitol Hill and as a lobbyist, the Senate confirmed Wheeler as EPA deputy administrator on 12 April 2018. Trump appointed Wheeler as acting EPA administrator beginning on 9 July following the departure of Pruitt, who worked to roll back dozens of environmental regulations and was enmeshed in a number of scandals, including charges of misusing taxpayer money.
For the last 4 or 5 years that Wheeler worked for the coal company, the number one issue they asked him to focus on was bipartisan legislation to shore up health care and pensions for miners, Wheeler said.
“My grandfather was a coal miner during the depression. My grandmother raised her children in the coal camps in West Virginia,” he said. “The work that I did on behalf of the company to try to help the retirees of the United Mine Workers is the reason why [they] endorsed my confirmation when I was nominated [as EPA deputy administrator] last year.”
Hopes and Concerns About Wheeler
The replacement of Pruitt with Wheeler was “like a giant air conditioner being turned on and sweeping out the old air” at the agency, said one EPA staffer who heard Wheeler’s speech and spoke to Eos on the condition of anonymity because of the staffer’s concern of not being authorized to speak with the press. “I hope that [Wheeler] is a moral person and that he cares more for the health of 300 million people than for a company.”
Ilana Solomon, director of federal campaigns for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Eos that Wheeler’s speech “struck a more conciliatory tone with EPA staff than Scott Pruitt ever did, but let’s not forget: Pruitt’s mistakes reached far beyond his scandals. As the EPA’s leader, Pruitt constantly undermined the agency’s mission, obscured his actions from the press and taxpayers, and cut out the voices he didn’t want to hear—including experts at his own agency. If Wheeler truly wants to defend the good work at the EPA, he needs to fix that problem first and foremost.
“Ultimately, the real test for Mr. Wheeler will be his actions on the many critical issues before the EPA, such as his predecessor’s efforts to restrict science use at the agency. This administration has demonstrated time and time again that talk is cheap. When it comes to Andrew Wheeler, his actions as the EPA’s acting administrator will speak louder than today’s words.”
Wheeler “will continue to champion deregulation and permit big polluters to evade compliance altogether,” charged Denise Morrison, acting president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ Council 238, which represents more than 8,000 EPA workers.
“Plain and simple, this ‘regulatory certainty’ is the new unregulated capitalism,” she said. “Quietly, Wheeler has replaced EPA’s mandate to defend public health with political appointees who apply arbitrary science to protect industry, and put the kybosh on laws preventing air pollution, water contamination and toxic lands remediation. AFGE Council #238 doesn’t expect anything to change in this EPA, whose toothless enforcement represents a bar that is now too low to even trip over.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer