If embattled Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt were to leave office, the reins of the agency could fall to a former Senate aide and coal mining lobbyist who was confirmed 53 to 45 Thursday afternoon to become second-in-command at the EPA.
President Trump nominated Wheeler for the deputy administrator job last fall, but only this week did his nomination finally arrive on the Senate floor for a vote.
Wheeler, who works for the lobbying firm Faegre Baker Daniels, received $370,000 in fees last year from Murray Energy. Murray has paid Wheeler’s firms $225,000 to $559,000 over the past nine years.
In March 2017, shortly after working for the Trump transition team, Wheeler attended a meeting between Murray’s chief executive, Robert Murray, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Murray asked Perry to increase payments to coal and nuclear plants supplying electricity to the Midwest and Appalachia. Perry tried to implement such a plan, but independent electricity regulators rejected it.
Environmental groups have sharply criticized the notion of installing Wheeler at the EPA in any capacity. But in recent days, as Pruitt has faced scrutiny over allegations of wasteful spending and unusual management of the agency, attention has turned to the prospect that Wheeler could end up in charge of the EPA.
“It is critically important that the public understand Wheeler’s career as a lobbyist for some of the worst actors in the energy industry,” Keith Gaby, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund, said in an email this week. “Andrew Wheeler running EPA would go far beyond having an administrator overly influenced by lobbyists — the head of EPA would be an energy industry lobbyist.”
“The mission of the EPA is to protect human health and the environment, but Andrew Wheeler has dedicated his career to weakening environmental protections, serving as a lobbyist for numerous fossil fuel clients, including one of our country’s biggest polluters, Murray Energy,” Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said in an open letter to members of the Senate. “Andrew Wheeler’s inherent conflicts of interest from his long history of ties to the fossil fuel industry make him an entirely inappropriate choice for EPA’s number two leadership role.”
Members of the EPA and others have said that Wheeler worked closely with the energy industry even when he was working for Inhofe, who was chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and is now a senior member. Karpinski pointed to a measure Inhofe co-sponsored known as the Clear Skies Act, which would have undermined the landmark Clean Air Act. Inhofe was a vocal critic of climate-change science, which he said was “the greatest hoax” ever foisted on U.S. citizens.
On Thursday, Wheeler’s former boss praised him on the Senate floor. Inhofe called Wheeler “a wonderful guy, and I would like to find anyone who knows him well to say there is any flaw in his character. He’s going to do a great job.”
Myron Ebell, a senior fellow at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute who headed Trump’s EPA transition team and is a climate-change skeptic, described Wheeler in a statement as levelheaded and effective.
“He has the experience and the expertise necessary to manage the agency and to make sure that the reforms undertaken by Administrator Pruitt will be fully implemented,” Ebell said. “[His]experience in how the EPA operates and his commitment to President Trump’s agenda to undo the regulatory onslaught of the previous administration will be valuable to his work managing and reforming the agency.”
Wheeler spent four years as a career employee at the EPA under President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton before moving to the Hill.
After leaving Inhofe’s staff, Wheeler received lobbying fees from a variety of clients. Last year he received $40,000 from Energy Fuels Resources, $20,000 from Underwriters Laboratories and $60,000 from Sargento Foods in addition to funds from Murray.
During the 2016 campaign, Wheeler volunteered to consult on energy and environmental policy for the campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Wheeler wrote a post on his personal Facebook account the day before Super Tuesday pleading with those considering voting for Trump to reconsider. In his six-point critique, Wheeler questioned Trump’s character, business acumen and viability as a general-election candidate. Trump was a “bully,” Wheeler wrote in the since-deleted Facebook post obtained by The Post. He said that Trump “hasn’t been that successful” in business and “has more baggage then all of the other Republican candidates combined.” Wheeler added that Trump “has demonstrated through the debates and interviews that he doesn’t understand how the government works.”
But Wheeler has changed his tune.
“I was just looking at the debates and what I saw on the news, and I hadn’t focused on what he was saying,” Wheeler told The Post in October, “and when I started looking into what he was saying and what his campaign and what his candidacy was about, I was fully on board.”
Given Trump’s agenda for rolling back a broad array of EPA rules, that won’t assuage environmental and Democratic critics.
“Mr. Wheeler — not atypical of this administration, not atypical of the dense swamp that they’ve made a whole lot worse — is a former industry lobbyist who has worked on behalf of big polluters and climate-change deniers,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor April 9. “He has spent years working to undermine or lobby against the environmental protections he may soon oversee. As a lobbyist, he helped raise money for a few Republican senators who sit on the committee that recently approved his nomination.”
Three Democrats voted for Wheeler, all from coal states. They included Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.).
Lukas Ross, climate and energy campaigner at the advocacy group Friends of the Earth, said in a statement that Wheeler would almost certainly carry out the regulatory rollbacks started under Pruitt.
“Andrew Wheeler is Big Oil’s backup plan in case Scott Pruitt’s corruption finally finishes him,” Ross said. “As Scott Pruitt stumbles from scandal to scandal, there is nothing more dangerous than a dirty-energy lobbyist waiting in the wings to become acting Administrator.”