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Youngkin appoints Trump EPA chief to new post after failed Cabinet bid

Former EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, who was nominated by Gov. Glenn Youngkin to be the secretary of Natural and Historic Resources, testifies before a U.S. Senate panel in January. He was rejected for that post and Youngkin is now appointing him to a different post. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin this week created a new office designed to slash state regulations and put it under the direction of Andrew Wheeler, the former Trump administration official rejected earlier this year for the Virginia governor’s Cabinet.

Youngkin (R) used an executive order to create the Office of Regulatory Management and chose Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who led a rollback of Obama-era environmental regulations as former president Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency chief, to lead it, the governor’s office announced Thursday night.

“Last year, I pledged to Virginians that we would remove 25% of the regulatory requirements in the Commonwealth,” Youngkin said in a written statement. “In the spirit of this objective, we have created the Office of Regulatory Management, led by Andrew Wheeler, which will create much needed transparency and efficiency in Virginia’s regulatory process to ensure that we have a government that works for the citizens of the Commonwealth.”

The announcement drew sharp criticism from General Assembly Democrats, who blocked Youngkin’s efforts to install Wheeler as his secretary of natural and historic resources. Wheeler will not need the legislature’s approval for this post.

Va. Senate panel snubs Trump EPA chief for Youngkin’s Cabinet

Adding to the uproar was an error in Youngkin’s executive order, his 19th since taking office in January. The order initially said changes to Virginia regulations would be posted at — a Trump website. It was later corrected to

“Youngkin just unilaterally worked around the General Assembly to appoint #AndrewWheeler — Trump’s EPA admin — to reduce regulatory oversight,” Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax) tweeted. “We’ve already seen the damage done by Trump’s cronies at the federal level, the last thing we want is the same for VA.”

Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who became the chief target of Youngkin’s ire during Wheeler’s nomination battle as head of the Senate committee that handles nominations, questioned the specific goal the governor has set for regulatory rollback.

“I think it’s arbitrary to claim that we need to cut 25 percent of regulations without claiming which of the regulations that were established to protect the environment or public health in others ways is unnecessary,” Ebbin said.

Wheeler said Youngkin arrived at the 25 percent target based on a regulatory-reduction pilot program launched under his predecessor, Democrat Ralph Northam. It sought to reduce regulatory requirements by that percentage over three years in the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation and the Department of Criminal Justice Services. Legislation creating the program passed the General Assembly in 2018 with broad bipartisan support.

“We picked the number because that was a number of a bipartisan pilot that began in the Commonwealth in 2018," Wheeler said in a written statement.

The General Assembly seldom rejects a governor’s Cabinet pick, and the rest of Youngkin’s choices sailed through a divided Capitol. But Wheeler drew fierce pushback from environmentalists and the state’s elected Democrats, including members of Congress. The pick prompted 150 former EPA employees to write a letter of protest, contending that he had undermined the agency’s mission.

Youngkin and fellow Republicans contended that Wheeler was exceptionally qualified, with a law degree, MBA and government experience at the highest level. Wheeler himself impressed some Democrats at a Senate committee hearing in January, when he portrayed himself as a mild-mannered Eagle Scout who believes in climate change, science and the concept of environmental justice.

But Democrats who narrowly control the state Senate ultimately rejected him, saying his record under Trump was disqualifying. After that defeat, Youngkin made clear that he intended to keep Wheeler on as a senior adviser, but his role had been unclear until now.

The new office will “streamline regulatory activities across the executive branch and manage cross-departmental functions such as regulations, permits, and grants,” according to the announcement. The executive order requires a review of all existing state regulations every four years and will subject proposals for new ones to “cost-benefit and other analyses … to ensure they are not overly burdensome on other public bodies or private citizens,” it said.