Speaking before a packed audience in the agency’s ornate Rachel Carson Room — named for the famed American environmentalist — Wheeler touted his time as a career employee at the EPA and his coal-mining heritage, and he pledged to act differently from his controversial predecessor, Scott Pruitt. He did not mention Pruitt — who resigned Thursday — by name, but he implicitly broke with Trump’s first EPA pick.
“My instinct will be to defend your work, and I will seek the facts from you before reaching conclusions,” he said, noting at one point that when it comes to leadership transitions at the EPA, “I understand how stressful that can be.”
The former coal lobbyist and Senate staffer made it clear that he would pursue the same policy priorities as Pruitt and did not utter the phrase “climate change” once.
“We will continue to build on these accomplishments” achieved since Trump took office in January 2017, Wheeler said, adding that the president gave him a clear sense of what he expected when the two men spoke by phone on Thursday.
“He said, ‘Clean up the air, clean up the water and provide regulatory relief.’ I think we can do all of those things at the same time,” Wheeler said.
Even as Wheeler has promised to move forward with the regulatory rollbacks that Pruitt began and to follow through on President Trump’s promises to make the EPA smaller and more industry-friendly, he vowed Wednesday to be more transparent about his actions than his predecessor. The acting administrator, who has scaled back the 24/7 security detail that Pruitt had, said he planned to visit all of the EPA’s regional offices “as soon as possible” and would take questions from employees during those visits.
There are early signs he means it. Pruitt rarely publicized where he was traveling and only began releasing his public calendars after the agency faced lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act. Wheeler’s online calendar, by contrast, was current through Tuesday. Pruitt had the doors to his third-floor office suite closed and installed biometric locks. Wheeler has ordered that the administrator’s office area be reopened to employees.
Wheeler addressed employees from the same space where Pruitt had stood 16 months earlier on his first full day as EPA administrator. That day, the former Oklahoma attorney general accepted an EPA ballcap from employees and detailed how the agency under his watch would adhere strictly to the authority granted by Congress and cede more responsibility to individual states.
Many months before the scandals that would force him from office, Pruitt also spoke that day of the need for civility. “In this environment we live in this country today … it’s a very toxic environment,” Pruitt said. “We have jerseys that we put on, both politically and otherwise. And that’s something, I think, is damaging to finding results and answers.”
The tone of Wednesday’s speech was markedly different. Career employees filled up the front seats at Wheeler’s speech — and gave him a rousing round of applause both before and after its conclusion — as dozens of reporters and cameras documented his remarks. His former boss, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) — who has nearly half a dozen former aides now serving in top posts at the EPA — also sat in the audience.
And while Wheeler did not take questions after his remarks, the Ohio native openly joked that in the meantime he would offer some answers in advance. He made references to Cincinnati’s Skyline Chili as well as the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Godfather,” along with more mysterious answers such as “c” and “all of the above.”
Still, some EPA employees greeted his remarks with skepticism. Denise D. Morrison — the acting president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council No. 238, representing more than 8,000 EPA workers nationwide — called Wheeler’s speech “simply a superficial attempt to plug the leaks and quell the dissent. A successful coal lobbyist doesn’t change his stripes. He will continue to champion deregulation and permit big polluters to evade compliance altogether.”
At least some EPA career employees who attended Wednesday’s speech, on the other hand, seemed thankful for Wheeler’s attempts to make clear he values their work.
“I’m very optimistic,” said Tamue Gibson, an EPA biologist, saying that, like others, she is “waiting to see” how Wheeler leads, but glad that he spent time as a career employee himself.
“At least he knows about how America needs us,” she said. “At least he knows people around the world count on us.”
Wheeler — who worked for years as a lobbyist for Murray Energy, including during the Trump administration — also spoke openly of his past financial and personal ties to the coal industry. The coal-mining giant paid his firm $300,000 or more annually from 2009 through 2017, according to records from the Center for Responsive Politics, and he arranged and attended a meeting in March 2017 between Murray chief executive Robert E. Murray and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Wheeler noted that he had more than 20 clients in private practice but added, “I’m not at all ashamed for the work that I did for a coal company.”
He noted that he spent the past several years working on the recent passage of legislation to shore up the pension and health benefits for retired mine workers, adding that the United Mine Workers endorsed his nomination as deputy administrator. He added that his grandfather worked as a coal miner and that his grandmother raised her children in the coal camps of West Virginia.
“I don’t think that story has been out there,” he said.
Wheeler’s rise to the top post at the EPA, while potentially temporary, came swiftly. Only months ago, it remained unclear whether the Senate would confirm him as the agency’s deputy administrator. Lawmakers eventually approved him in April by a vote of 53 to 45.
Before returning to the EPA, where he had worked for several years during the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Wheeler spent a decade lobbying for many of the kinds of companies he will now be in charge of regulating. In addition to Murray Energy, his past clients have included Xcel Energy and the Nuclear Energy Institute. Wheeler has noted that he has represented a wide range of clients, including ones that have no business before the EPA, and that he personally had not lobbied the agency on its regulations in years.
“I’ve spent a career working on multiple issue areas and multiple sides of different issues,” he told The Washington Post in an interview last week. “I don’t think I’m biased.”
Before his lobbying career, Wheeler worked for Inhofe, who has rejected the notion of climate change and sharply criticized what he calls the regulatory overreach of the EPA in recent years to address the problem. As a staff director and chief counsel to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, he worked to defeat climate change legislation on Capitol Hill.
Wheeler also has criticized the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific organization that works under the auspices of the United Nations, for functioning “more as a political body than a scientific body.” He has argued that the group should revisit its 2009 finding that carbon-dioxide emissions posed a threat to public health. But recently he said he accepts federal court rulings that the EPA’s scientific conclusion that it must regulate greenhouse gases is settled law.
Wheeler’s address Wednesday comes amid the departure of a number of Pruitt aides from the agency. The departures this week include Jahan Wilcox, who as Pruitt’s combative spokesman fiercely defended the embattled Cabinet member and found himself facing criticism for his sometimes antagonistic approach to reporters covering the EPA; Lincoln Ferguson, a longtime aide and confidant who worked for Pruitt in Oklahoma and was nearly always by his side during his travels; Hayley Ford, deputy White House liaison; and Kelsi Daniell, an EPA spokeswoman.
Wheeler, who often has been described as keeping a low profile during his various roles in Washington, acknowledged how he runs the agency will be under intense scrutiny.
“I really did not seek this job out, to be acting administrator. I was very content being the deputy,” he told The Post last week. “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.”