A year and a half ago, Andrew Wheeler, a prominent coal lobbyist who worked for years for Senate Republicans, joined many other “establishment” Republicans in criticizing the long-shot candidacy of political newbie Donald Trump.
In February 2016, ahead of the Super Tuesday primaries, Wheeler laid out in a Facebook post a skepticism of Trump’s character, business acumen and viability as a general-election candidate.
He wrote that Trump was a “bully,” one who “hasn’t been that successful” in business and who “has more baggage then all of the other Republican candidates combined.” He wrote that Trump was a candidate who “has demonstrated through the debates and interviews that he doesn’t understand how the government works."
But what truly precluded Trump from becoming president, Wheeler wrote in the since-deleted Facebook post obtained by The Energy 202, was his propensity to bully. “This alone should disqualify him from the White House.”
Fast-forward to now: President Trump nominated Wheeler on Thursday to be deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In an interview on Friday, Wheeler explained to me how he went from critic of Trump to a volunteer for the eventual GOP nominee to, ultimately, Trump’s choice for the No. 2 EPA position -- a nomination that has engendered some of the harshest condemnation of the administration from environmentalists to date.
“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 said this week of Trump, “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.”
Read Wheeler's full, six-point critique here:
Rewind to 2016: Back in February of that year, Wheeler was working as a volunteer consultant for energy and environmental policy for the campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Ahead of the "Super Tuesday" vote in 11 states, Rubio was in a crowded race for the GOP presidential nod. The biggest hurdle between Rubio and a spot on the general-election ticket was Trump.
Friends of Wheeler — who has spent nearly a decade lobbying for energy companies such as coal giant Murray Energy — encouraged him to post on his personal Facebook page the day before the mega-primary a plea to those considering voting for Trump to reconsider.
“I’m from Ohio and have a lot of friends in Ohio who vote on Super Tuesday,” Wheeler told The Post, “and a couple of friends had said to me when I was working for Rubio that I ought to post something about the campaign."
About three months later, Trump gave a major energy policy speech in North Dakota, where for the first time he laid out his “energy dominance” agenda emphasizing the development of domestic fossil-fuel resources.
In that May 2016 speech, Trump promised to “cancel” the Paris climate accord and undo Obama administration efforts to give the EPA broader authority to regulate water pollution as part of the “Waters of the United States,” or WOTUS, rule.
“I think the federal government should get out of the way,” Trump told the crowd. “We have so much potential energy, people wouldn’t even believe it.”
“A lot of my friends in the Republican energy and environment field here in D.C. were impressed with that speech,” Wheeler said this week.
Wheeler said he was finally swayed in June when Trump spoke at a closed-door fundraising dinner in Wheeling, W.Va., hosted b Robert Murray, chief executive of Murray Energy, and attended by Wheeler. After leaving Capitol Hill, Wheeler worked as an energy consultant and lobbyist for Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting, where his clients have included Murray Energy. (Wheeler has also represented utility holding company Xcel Energy and the Nuclear Energy Institute, which lobbies for the U.S. nuclear industry.)
“It was about a 40-minute energy speech that [Trump] gave,” Wheeler told The Post. “He didn’t use notes. He didn’t use a teleprompter. I really thought it was the most comprehensive energy speech by a presidential candidate I had ever heard.” After that, Wheeler said he joined the Trump campaign as one of two volunteer energy and environmental policy consultants.
“I didn’t talk to a lot of people about being on the campaigns,” Wheeler said.
Rewind even more: Wheeler has been working in Washington since the early 1990's, starting as a career employee at the EPA in the George H.W. Bush administration and making a name for himself on Capitol Hill where he worked for more than a decade for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
If confirmed by the Senate, Wheeler will become the latest former staffer for Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the committee’s former chairman, to join the EPA, now being run by another Oklahoma Republican, Scott Pruitt. Both Inhofe and Pruitt are known for questioning the scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet.
Wheeler may join Ryan Jackson, Inhofe’s former chief of staff who became Pruitt's chief of staff; and Amanda Gunasekara, who will advise the EPA administrator on air and climate issues.
Bigger picture: Wheeler isn't the first “establishment” Republican to join the Trump administration. You don't have to look beyond Trump's Cabinet for other examples, which include Energy Secretary Rick Perry (who once called Trump “a cancer on conservatism”) and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson (who once questioned Trump’s religious faith).
Many Republicans will never see eye to eye with Trump on some issues, such as rewriting free-trade agreements or ramping up infrastructure spending.
But they can agree with the president on reining in the EPA.
Like other Republicans once apprehensive of Trump, Wheeler changed his tune after Trump articulated an energy and environmental platform (and, of course, once it became increasingly clear that Trump would win the GOP nomination).
Trump's emphasis on environmental deregulation is one of the several ways the unconventional Republican has endeared himself to the party's pre-2016 establishment.
Just take a look at one of Trump's harshest election critics, Jeb Bush. Last December, the former Florida governor heaped praise on Trump for choosing Pruitt as EPA administrator. "I cannot think of a person more suited to lead the Environmental Protection Agency,” Bush wrote in a CNN op-ed.
Looking forward again: As Wheeler prepares to join the EPA, the agency is reviewing pollution rules that the Obama administration placed on coal-fired power plants that, in turn, affect coal suppliers such as Murray Energy.
They include rules regulating how much mercury coal plants can emit into the air and how a byproduct of those power plants called coal ash is disposed of.
Environmental groups harshly criticized Trump for nominating Wheeler. Citing his time in Inhofe’s office, Melinda Pierce, legislative director at the Sierra Club, said, “There actually could not have been a worse choice for this highly influential position.”
Expect to see Senate Democrats ask Wheeler whether he will recuse himself from working on any EPA rules he lobbied on.
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-- Fight or flight: Here's the latest on the investigations into Cabinet members' flying habits...
- The EPA’s inspector general is now probing Scott Pruitt’s use of military and private flights, reports our colleague Brady Dennis. Pruitt took at least four chartered and military flights costing $58,000 since February, per recent disclosures that led to the inspector general’s investigation. The IG's office initially began examining Pruitt’s frequent travel to his home state of Oklahoma.
- Rick Perry can't exactly get in trouble from the White House for a chartered flight he took in September, the day before Tom Price resigned as HHS secretary over his own use of private planes. That's because Perry's trip that came at the request of the White House, The Hill reports. Otherwise, Perry appears to be prefer flying Southwest or United.
- Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is facing new criticism about his travel — often accompanied by his wife, who is managing a Republican campaign in Montana — that included stops at political fundraisers and donor events. Mic has a full report here: "Two sources close to the Interior Department described an internal effort to hide the presence of Lola Zinke on the official trips where she accompanied her husband."
That brings the total number of inspector general investigations into Cabinet members' flying habits up to at least five, as The Post's Drew Harwell, Lisa Rein and Jack Gillum report.
-- The latest on Puerto Rico:
- There are still people dying in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. But the government has been slow to update its official death toll. According to BuzzFeed, funeral home directors say they have buried far more people than accounted for in the official tally. And elected officials and people on the island have said they have buried people without notifying the government.
- Last week, The Energy 202 wrote about the importance of getting Puerto Rico's communications system up and running in order to restore electricity. Now, Google's parent company, Alphabet, says it's here to help. The FCC approved Alphabet's application to provide emergency cell service to Puerto Rico through solar-powered balloons, Reuters reports.
- Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has said that he will ask lawmakers for a long-term relief package by January, Bloomberg reports.
- Meanwhile, as the recovery efforts continue, the political tensions are rising. FEMA administrator Brock Long said in an interview Sunday that criticism from San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz has been ignored. "We filtered out the mayor a long time ago, we don't have time for the political noise," Long said.
Watch part of Long's interview here:
-- Friction between FERC and Perry: Two little-noted comments from two of the three current members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last week are big deal for the fate of Perry's proposal to recover more revenue for coal-fired and nuclear power plants.
Background: Last month, Perry directed FERC to look into issuing new regulations to ensure that coal and nuclear plants were paid properly for adding to the reliability of the electric grid. In short order, representatives from other parts of the energy sector — including oil, gas, wind and solar — banded together in opposition to the the quick pace Perry wants those changes to be made.
What just happened: It looks like two FERC commissioners share some of those apprehensions. Robert Powelson, a FERC commissioner appointed by Trump, told an audience at the annual meeting of the Organization of PJM States, according to SNL Financial:
"We will not destroy the marketplace," Powelson said. "Markets have worked well and markets need to continue to work well." He added, "I did not sign up to go blow up the markets."
Following Powelson's remarks, Cheryl LaFleur, another FERC commissioner who was appointed by President Obama, issued her own "hear! hear!" on Twitter:
Great message!— Cheryl LaFleur (@CLaFleurFERC) October 4, 2017
SNL: FERC's Powelson pledges "not to destroy" energy markets despite DOE directive https://t.co/OSCzjJJREN
Why it matters: Even with the implicit support of the third FERC commissioner, Neil Chatterjee, who has already signaled he could be receptive to the move (saying recently, “I believe that generation, including our existing coal and nuclear fleet, need to be properly compensated to recognize the value they provide to the system"), Perry doesn't seem to have the FERC votes he needs to get the sweeping electricity-market regulations he wants.
-- Trump couldn't save this one: The latest in a string of coal plants to announce it is shuttering is the Monticello power plant in Texas, The Houston Chronicle reports. "The market's unprecedented low power price environment has profoundly impacted its operating revenue and no longer supports continued investment," Curt Morgan, CEO of Dallas-based Vistra, said in announcing the closure of the 1,800-megawatt facility.
What's important here: News of FERC's ongoing review of the U.S. electricity markets, which may send more revenue to coal and nuclear power plants — and in general, the Trump administration's pro-coal priorities — weren't enough to give operators at Luminant, a subsidiary of Vistra Energy, the confidence to keep the plant going. (Although it's worth noting that Texas's deregulated electricity market, contained within the state's borders, is not subject to the same interstate FERC jurisdiction most other U.S. electricity markets are.)
-- That was quick: Yet again following a major Atlantic storm — this time, Hurricane Nate — oil production in the Gulf of Mexico was halted. But a line buried in a Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement report, pointed out by Bloomberg News, indicates: “No damages have been reported.” Already Chevron and Enbridge workers are returning to offshore platforms.
-- Ironman wants to rescue Puerto Rico: Tesla chief executive Elon Musk tweeted to Puerto Rican Gov. Rosselló with an idea: Let Tesla help to rebuild the island’s electric grid with a high-tech solar grid. The two had a back-and-forth over the weekend about the idea.
Musk said that he had previously built solar grids for small islands, tweeting that there "is no scalability limit, so it can be done for Puerto Rico too."
From Musk and Rosselló:
The Tesla team has done this for many smaller islands around the world, but there is no scalability limit, so it can be done for Puerto Rico too. Such a decision would be in the hands of the PR govt, PUC, any commercial stakeholders and, most importantly, the people of PR.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 5, 2017
I would be happy to talk. Hopefully, Tesla can be helpful.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 6, 2017
The Post’s Brian Fung writes: "While Musk's idea wouldn't solve Puerto Rico's current crisis — 90 percent of the island is still without power, and many people are having trouble getting clean water — it could set the island on the path to sustainable, renewable energy, which could reduce its dependence on imported fossil fuels and ultimately bolster its economy.”
And for Puerto Rico, which has some of the highest energy prices in the world, a shift to solar power could help with the island’s economic woes.
However, Musk may be too starry-eyed here. As The Post's Chris Mooney wrote last month: "at least until battery storage becomes more widely affordable, islanded grids could not solely be powered by the sun, which is only out during the day. They would instead need to alternate solar with some continuing use fossil fuels to ensure a continual electricity supply."
-- Another weekend, another hurricane: After making landfall twice over the weekend, Hurricane Nate was downgraded quickly into a tropical depression on Sunday as it moved inland, report The Post's Joel Achenbach and Patricia Sullivan. There have not been any reports of deaths or severe property damage, they add. A spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency cited resources like sea walls, and updated building codes in place since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as preventing extensive damage. Nate was the first hurricane since Katrina to come ashore in Mississippi, and the fourth this year to hit the United States.
The New York Times summed up the feeling in Biloxi, Miss. well with this headline: "In a Season of Monsters, Gulf Coast Feels Lucky All It Got Was Nate."
Here are some of the images of heavy rains as Nate passed through:
From CBS News' David Begnaud:
Flooding along Royal St. in Mobile, Alabama after Hurricane Nate rolled thru pic.twitter.com/Zne6MRg4o3— David Begnaud (@DavidBegnaud) October 8, 2017
The Weather Channel's Mike Seidel:
From National Geographic photographer Mike Theiss:
- The House Agriculture Committee holds a listening session on the Farm Bill.
- The Atlantic Council holds an event on trade dialogue and the role of energy for the United States and China on Tuesday.
- The World Resources Institute holds an event on “Open Government for Climate Action” on Tuesday.
- The Heritage Foundation and Pacific Legal Foundation hold an event on the WOTUS debate on Tuesday.
- The Fissile Materials Working Group and International Panel on Fissile Materials hold an event to launch a research report on the use of highly enriched uranium in Russia on Wednesday.
- The House Agriculture Committee holds a public hearing on the agenda for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission on Wednesday.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands holds a legislative hearing on various bills on Wednesday.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources holds a legislative hearing on the outer continental shelf bill on Wednesday.
- Energy Secretary Rick Perry will testify before the The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy during a hearing on the Energy Department’s missions and management priorities on Thursday.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans holds a legislative hearing on Thursday.
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds an event on the International Energy Agency’s Renewable Energy Market Report for 2017 on Thursday.
- Bloomberg hosts its third annual Sustainable Business Summit starting on Thursday.
- The Bipartisan Policy Center holds an event with former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on October 18.
Nate first made landfall as a Category1 storm near the mouth of the Mississippi River:
Tropical Storm Nate weakened over Alabama:
In Oklahoma City, heavy rain waters rush through the Lake Overholser Dam:
A Puerto Rican man confronted Vice President Pence during his visit to the island:
On Saturday Night Live, Kate McKinnon as Ruth Bader Gisburg shares her thoughts on working with Justice Neil Gorsuch:
Trevor Noah reacts to a Fox News pundit who lashed out at him for getting involved in America's gun control debate: