In some ways, Andrew Wheeler — former Environmental Protection Agency career staffer, Republican Senate aide, energy lobbyist — could hardly be more different from the man he is replacing as head of the EPA.
Where Scott Pruitt was a career politician who enjoyed the limelight, Wheeler has worked behind the scenes on energy and environmental law. Pruitt filled his time at the agency by traveling the country, speaking to groups of industry executives and praising President Trump. As the EPA’s deputy administrator, Wheeler has spent much of his short tenure meeting with career staffers and delving into the policy weeds at the agency’s headquarters.
But this much is clear: Wheeler intends to pursue many of the regulatory rollbacks Pruitt put in motion and to carry out Trump’s promises of a more efficient, less powerful EPA. A day after the president asked for Pruitt’s resignation amid a flurry of ethics scandals, the EPA’s acting administrator spoke with The Washington Post about what comes next. The interview has been edited for length and clarity:
Washington Post: How do you feel arriving as administrator under these circumstances? And what’s the message you’re giving to employees who have been through a tumultuous time?
Andrew Wheeler: I sent out an all-hands statement to all the employees yesterday evening. One, thanking the administrator for his service, and then telling everybody that it’s work as usual — we’re all working together — and that I share the core mission of the agency, which is to protect public health and the environment.
WP: Can you expand a little on that and what you’re going to do in terms of continuing the policies that Scott Pruitt put in motion? As you can imagine, Democrats and environmentalists are making the argument that you’re an even more skilled deregulator.
Wheeler: A more skilled deregulator?
WP: Do you reject that notion?
Wheeler: I don’t get that notion. I’ll have to think about that. I’ve actually seen a lot of things about me in print the last day or two. But I would say that the agenda for the agency was set out by President Trump. And Administrator Pruitt has been working to implement that. I will try to work to implement the president’s agenda as well. I don’t think the overall agenda is going to change that much, because we’re implementing what the president has laid out for the agency. He made several campaign promises that we are working to fulfill here. But there will probably be a little bit of difference in the way Administrator Pruitt and I will talk about some issues. There have already been some differences in how I’ve talked to EPA employees since I’ve been here.
You know, I had the benefit of having the longest confirmation process for a deputy administrator in EPA history. So I had some time to think about what I wanted to do as the deputy. I took a hard look at the major criticisms that the agency has received over the last 20 some years. What can be changed? What can be fixed? What can be put in a different direction? And how does all that fit under cooperative federalism, return to rule of law and getting back to basics of the agency?
Since I’ve been here, I’ve been going around talking to groups of career employees. I’ve been to three of our regions, and I’ve been to our Research Triangle Park lab in North Carolina. I’ve talked about what I want to try to accomplish on behalf of the administration, on behalf of the president. I really think we need to provide more certainty to the American public. And I look at certainty in three different areas. The first is certainty on permits. The second is certainty on enforcement actions. And the third — the one that’s most important to me — is certainty on risk communication.
WP: As you know well, one of the criticisms of Mr. Pruitt was a lack of transparency in who he was meeting with and what he was doing with his time at the agency. Do you plan to put in place mechanisms to be more transparent, in letting the public be aware of the work that’s being done?
Wheeler: I’m not going to criticize my predecessor in any way. But I will answer by saying this: I cut my teeth as a career employee here at the EPA in the early ’90s working on the Community Right-to-Know Act. And I believe that my time on the Hill and in the legislation I worked on — how I addressed all statutes, how I addressed all laws — was that the more information we make available to the American public, the more transparency we have, the better our decisions will be. The more open we are, the better it is for everyone.
That’s how I cut my teeth on environmental law. And that’s been part of my core beliefs in the agency and how I look at environmental issues. The more transparent we are, the better understood our decisions will be.
WP: On climate change, that’s been a key issue. As staff director, one of the things you did working with [Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James M.] Inhofe was, while he talked a lot about questioning climate science, you expanded what he talked about to really include things like the economic costs of these regulations. Can you talk a little about how you see your approach to climate, as well as science, including the changes we’ve seen to the Scientific Advisory Board?
Wheeler: Sure. There are a couple questions embedded in that. You’re right, when I went over to the Senate, I personally focused more on the cost side on the climate debate — the cost-benefit and the different aspects of the legislation.
I did do my undergraduate work in biology. I do not consider myself to be a scientist, and I’ve always deferred to career scientists on issues of science. I’ve done that in the two and a half months I’ve been here, and I’ll continue to do that. On the Science Advisory Board, I think it’s important to be very transparent, and I think it’s important to make sure people who serve on the science advisory boards don’t have conflicts of interest.
While I was not here last year when the Science Advisory Board was reconfigured . . . I understand the desire to make sure that the people serving on the board weren’t also benefiting from science grants from the agency. I do think that’s important to make sure that there are not conflicts of interest. Hopefully, you saw my recusal statement where I did not seek any waivers, and I don’t plan to seek any waivers. I think it’s important to make sure that we address conflicts of interest very openly and upfront.
WP: Can you summarize where you stand on climate change and, more importantly, EPA’s role in dealing with that problem?
Wheeler: I do believe climate change is real. I do believe that people have an impact on the climate. What’s the most important — and I’m glad you asked it that way — is the second half of your question is, what is EPA’s role there?
I think our role is to follow the statutes that are provided to us by Congress. And I think that the statutory directives are very small. My criticism of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan was that it was outside the four corners of the Clean Air Act. And I think the fact that the Supreme Court took the unprecedented move of issuing a stay showed the fact that the law probably would not have held up in court. So I think as we move forward on a potential replacement for the Clean Power 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.
I know that there’s a number of senators that would like us to go much further, but of course environmental organizations would love us to go much further. But you’re not going to see the EPA, at least under my direction, make up a lot as we go along. We’re going to follow the law that Congress has given us.
WP: To follow up on that, do you hold that, for example, the “endangerment finding” [that created the basis for regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant] is settled law? Or would you say that there’s also an open question about whether that is a proper interpretation of the Clean Air Act?
Wheeler: On the endangerment finding, I was very critical of the method that the agency used to come up with the endangerment finding, that they did not do independent analysis, that they relied upon the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]. And that was litigated; it was taken to the U.S. Circuit Court, and the Circuit Court upheld the EPA position. So I consider that to be settled law. There would have to be a major, compelling reason to try to ever reopen that. I don’t think that’s an open question at this point.
WP: Before coming to the EPA in recent years, you worked as a lobbyist for some of the industries that you’ll now be responsible for regulating. How will you approach regulating those industries, many of which are heavily invested in what comes out of EPA?
Wheeler: You’re right, I did work for a number of different industries, a number of different companies. I did not lobby the EPA for at least the last two years. In fact, our communications team today has tried to press me to remember how long ago it was that I actually lobbied the EPA, and I can’t remember. It’s been at least three or four years, maybe longer. The only EPA issue that I’ve actually lobbied on the last couple of years was the Energy Star program, and that was on behalf of a client who was fighting to keep the integrity of the EPA program intact. It was to defeat a Senate Republican amendment that wanted to do away with third-party certification.
So, I mean, anybody could take a look at any one of my clients and say, “Well, you might be biased this way or you might be biased that way.” I’ve spent a career working on multiple issue areas and multiple sides of different issues. Having started my career at EPA, having worked on the Hill for two different members who didn’t agree on every issue, and then working in the private practice, where I’ve worked on behalf of different clients — I don’t think I’m biased.
I certainly have no fiduciary arrangements with any of my former clients or my former law firm. I don’t benefit financially from anything like that. And I think there’s been enough distance on the EPA issues that I’ve worked on in the past where I don’t believe I have bias in any particular way on any of these issues. But I think the experience that I’ve had working as a consultant, working on the Hill, working as a career employee of the agency, has really prepared me well for this job at this point in my life.
WP: For someone who is so often described as low-profile, this doesn’t seem the type of job that you can really avoid the spotlight. How do you feel about that part of it?
Wheeler: I really did not seek this job out, to be acting administrator. I was very content being the deputy. So I’m going to have to deal with that. But I have been in D.C. now for over 25 years. I realize that I’m walking into a job that’s going to be a lot more high-profile than I would have wanted. But I really do think [that] my background, at this point in time, that this is the right job for me.