Andrew Wheeler, until now the low-profile deputy administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, became a likely successor to the scandal-plagued Scott Pruitt Thursday and an appealing alternative for those hoping to continue to roll back key EPA policies.
Even if Wheeler ends up recusing himself from specific EPA decisions, his record as a lobbyist suggests his views might not differ much from those of President Trump. At the firm Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting, Wheeler represented energy companies, mining companies and a mixture of others with issues ranging from food to salvaging automobiles. Among his professional activities, he once listed his post as vice president of the Washington Coal Club.
“I have no doubt that Andy will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda,” Trump tweeted as he announced that he had accepted Pruitt’s resignation. “We have made tremendous progress and the future of the EPA is very bright!”
The Senate confirmed Wheeler for the deputy slot in April by a vote of 53 to 45. It would need to confirm him again for the top position were he nominated by Trump.
“There is every reason to expect that he will pursue just as vigorously all the regulatory policies and initiatives in progress that were initiated by Pruitt,” said Joseph Goffman, executive director of Harvard Law School’s environmental law program.
Pruitt had moved to Washington as an outsider and EPA antagonist following a stint as Oklahoma attorney general. By contrast, Wheeler knows Washington well and even has experience within the agency, where he served four years during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. His combined experience might make him more effective, especially if he isn’t distracted by the type of investigations that dogged Pruitt.
The acting administrator sent an email to EPA employees after news broke about Pruitt. “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 said. “I look forward to working hard alongside all of you to continue our collective goal of protecting public health and the environment on behalf of the American people.”
But environmental groups vowed to fight him as much as they have the outgoing chief.
“Andrew Wheeler is equally unqualified to serve as the nation’s chief environmental steward,” Ana Unruh Cohen, managing director for government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “This veteran coal lobbyist has shown only disdain for the EPA’s vital mission to protect Americans’ health and our environment.”
While a lobbyist, Wheeler’s best-paying client was Murray Energy. The coal-mining company paid his firm $300,000 or more annually from 2009 through 2017, according to records from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Wheeler arranged and attended a March 28, 2017, meeting between chief executive Robert E. Murray and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Murray, who had contributed heavily to the Trump campaign, laid out a four-page plan for rolling back regulations and protecting coal plants in danger of closing because of competition from other fuel supplies.
The Trump administration has already taken steps to address most of the issues on Murray’s list. The president recently ordered the Energy Department to invoke Cold War-era energy emergency powers to take actions that would prevent the closure of coal and nuclear power plants for at least two years, which is what Murray has been seeking.
On Capitol Hill, Wheeler not only worked for Inhofe but also was staff director and chief counsel to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where he concentrated on defeating climate-related legislation that came before lawmakers.
He supported efforts to exempt industrial plants from pollution controls in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and limit their liability for harm caused by the release of toxic chemicals. He favored the elimination of the New Source Review permitting process that is an important part of environmental legislation.
As a lobbyist, Wheeler commented on a 2010 National Journal blog post that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “has functioned more as a political body than a scientific body” and that the group should revisit its 2009 finding that carbon-dioxide emissions posed a threat to public health.
He also suggested that lawmakers back a proposal by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to overturn the endangerment finding. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Air Act required the EPA to come up with a plan to curb emissions of greenhouse gases. Wheeler said overturning the court decision would “allow legislators to craft sensible energy policy that can promote energy independence without killing our domestic production of fossil fuels.”
“Wheeler is viewed generally as a sort of standard-issue member of the Washington, D.C., policy and lobbying ecosystem,” said Goffman, a Democrat who worked at the EPA and opposite Wheeler on the Senate Energy Committee.
“If the concern, though, is policy and public health protection and the way EPA functions, then I think Andy Wheeler can be counted on, unfortunately, to carry out exactly the same policies and reflect exactly the same ideology as Pruitt,” Goffman continued. “He is a member of the very same coalition Pruitt has been representing.”
According to Goffman, Wheeler does not need to recuse himself from most agency decisions. Goffman said that the EPA ethics office takes a narrow view of conflicts of interest.
“Policy or program-level decisions of general impact are not subject to recusal requirements even if Wheeler advocated for specific outcomes with respect to such policies or rules when in private practice,” Goffman said. “Notwithstanding that common sense would make you think that he brings an ideological or private-practice-engendered predisposition or prejudgment on those policies.”
Wheeler also represented Energy Fuels Resources, a uranium-mining firm that could benefit from Trump’s announcement in December to halve the size of the Bears Ears National Monument. He was lobbying the administration about the issue nearly nine months before the announcement.
In May 2017, Energy Fuels wrote a letter asking the administration to change the monument’s boundaries because of “many other known uranium and vanadium deposits” that “could provide valuable energy and mineral resources in the future.”
Another former Wheeler client, the Minneapolis-based utility Xcel, has fought an EPA regulation that would require coal plants built between 1962 and 1977 to upgrade their facilities with scrubbers to meet sulfur dioxide emissions standards. Installing scrubbers could be costly for Xcel. One of its coal units in Amarillo, Tex., dates to 1976.
The Bear Head LNG Corp. also paid Wheeler’s firm at least $10,000 last year. The company, a subsidiary of LNGL (Liquefied Natural Gas Limited), wants to export liquefied natural gas from Nova Scotia, and it needed Energy Department approval to export natural gas produced in the United States.
In 2010, a group called the Parent South Coast Air Quality Management District paid Wheeler’s firm $250,000 to help in its battle against an EPA regulation that would limit ozone emissions. Because ozone is a pollutant that affects people in immediate areas, the regulation would force companies within a certain zone to cut emissions.
Although the group hadn’t engaged Wheeler in recent years, it has continued fighting the EPA in court. It lost in a Feb. 16 decision written by Judge David B. Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Another client, Darling Ingredients, paid Wheeler’s firm $420,000 over three years. The company has a stake in changes to the complicated Renewable Fuel Standard and the tax credit for companies that blend ethanol with gasoline.
The Irving, Tex.-based company also agreed in 2016 to settle allegations of Clean Water Act violations at four facilities used to store petroleum fuels, vegetable oils and animal fats for $99,000.
Wheeler also represented Whirlpool, Sargento Foods, Underwriters Laboratories, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the Coalition for Domestic Medical Isotope Supply and Insurance Auto Auctions, which deals in large numbers of salvaged cars.
Murray Energy was his steadiest client, however. In 2014, Murray joined the fight against the Obama administration’s landmark rule limiting mercury and other toxic emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants.
In a friend-of-the-court brief in support of states and industry groups, the company told the Supreme Court that the rule undermined state and local efforts to provide affordable and reliable electricity. Two years later, it sued to block the EPA from regulating mercury from power plants under the Clean Air Act.
Its chief executive, who said he has not had any contact with Wheeler since he became deputy administrator, wrote in an email Thursday that “Scott Pruitt was an exceptional Administrator of the U.S. EPA in overturning the illegal actions of the Obama Administration. It is a tragedy for America to lose such a qualified Administrator.”
Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement that “elevating former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to head the EPA is only trading one fossil fuel friend for another.”
Yet many Republicans will find that Wheeler’s track record makes him the sort of EPA leader they want.
“Andrew Wheeler is the perfect choice to serve as Acting Administrator,” Inhofe said in a statement Thursday. “Andrew worked for me for 14 years, has an impeccable reputation and has the experience to be a strong leader at the EPA. I have no doubt and complete confidence he will continue the important deregulatory work that Scott Pruitt started while being a good steward of the environment.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Environmental Protection Agency fined Darling Ingredients $1.1 million in 2014 for Clean Water Act violations at a rendering plant in Lexington, Neb. The fine was imposed on a different company, Nebraska By-Products, which later sold the facility to Darling. The story also misidentified the national monument on which Energy Fuels Resources lobbied the administration. It was the Bears Ears National Monument, not the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The article has been updated.