Energy & environmental Reporter

THE LIGHTBULB

Just 24 minutes.

That's the amount of time it took for at least one Democratic senator to stop celebrating Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt's ouster on Thursday — and start skewering his successor, Andrew Wheeler.

After months of news reports about Pruitt's questionable spending and managing decisions, President Trump finally succumbed to pressure to remove his beleaguered EPA chief from office. Pruitt tendered his resignation Thursday afternoon after the mounting ethical lapses finally eroded the president’s confidence in a deputy among the most aggressive in the administration at deregulating his agency.

Now the knives are already out for his successor. Environmentalists wasted little time lambasting the EPA's No. 2 official, Andrew Wheeler, before he even had the chance to officially take the helm of the agency as acting administrator.

Some Democrats, along with their environmentalist allies, are gearing up to fight Wheeler just as aggressively as they did Pruitt. One of the most vocal critics of Trump's EPA in Congress, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), slammed Wheeler's past work as a coal lobbyist within a half hour of the announcement: 

“While we applaud Pruitt’s departure,” said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, “our focus now shifts to acting administrator and coal industry crony Andrew Wheeler.” 

Wheeler, who was installed as Pruitt's second-in-command in April, is widely expected by those on both ends of the political spectrum to carry forward the same deregulatory policies as Pruitt, including repealing major Obama administration rules attempting to rein in carbon pollution from cars and coal-fired power plants.

"I have no doubt that Andy will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda," Trump wrote on Twitter. "We have made tremendous progress and the future of the EPA is very bright!"

Trump's conservative allies gave Wheeler their seal of approval following Pruitt's departure. Myron Ebell, the former head of Trump’s EPA transition team, said he has “full confidence” in Wheeler's ability “to carry President Trump’s important EPA reform agenda forward.”

Wheeler himself has suggested he would keep the agency on the same path Pruitt forged. “I’ve really liked what I’ve heard Administrator Pruitt talk about,” Wheeler told The Post in an interview in October, “getting back to the core mission of the agency.”

But unlike Pruitt, Wheeler will not be burdened with the ethical baggage his boss had accumulated during his nearly 17-month tenure. Wheeler is seen as a well tested Washington hand, having worked here since the early 1990s when he started as a career employee at the EPA under President George H.W. Bush.

Before joining the Trump administration, Wheeler worked for nearly a decade as a lobbyist. At the firm Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting, Wheeler represented a mix of energy, mining and food clients. For example, Wheeler lobbied the Trump administration about reducing Bears Ears National Monument in size — work done on behalf of the uranium-mining firm Energy Fuels Resources.

But the work Wheeler's critics have latched onto the most was for his best-paying client: coal producer Murray Energy.

Wheeler had arranged a March 2017 meeting between that coal company’s chief executive, Robert E. Murray, and another Trump Cabinet member, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, at which the Trump-supporting coal chief “laid out a four-page plan for rolling back regulations and protecting coal plants in danger of closing because of competition from other fuel supplies,” The Post's Steven Mufson reports.

Markey and other Democrats in the Senate, which will ultimately have a say in approving Pruitt's permanent successor, have shown little appetite for Wheeler to stay atop the EPA for long.  

Another high-ranking Senate Democrat — New Mexico's Tom Udall, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing EPA funding — derided Wheeler as a “climate denier” in a statement.

Wheeler spent an even longer chunk of his career working for one of their colleagues, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the former chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe is perhaps best known for once on a chilly February day bringing a snowball onto the Senate floor — to show that global warming is fake.

Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, told reporters Thursday there are parts of Wheeler's résumé that give both Democrats and Republicans “pause as to whether or not he's the right person to be the administrator.” 

Carper suggested Trump find a new EPA chief from among the ranks of state leaders. 

“There are over 30 Republican governors in this country,” Carper said. “Every one of them has a secretary of something like a Department of Environmental Protection. Every one of them. And they are a great talent pool for prospective administrators.”

In total, only three Senate Democrats — Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.), each from coal-mining states — voted for Wheeler's nomination the first time around.

For months, Pruitt was a convenient punching bag for Democratic politicians wishing to highlight Trump's failure to “drain the swamp” of corrupt bureaucrats.

The left, however, is unlikely to be satisfied with Pruitt's replacement — whether it ends up being Wheeler or someone else permanently.

But there is a bright spot for progressives: The hope to use an ex-coal lobbyist's presence atop the agency to rev up voters in 2018 and, ultimately, 2020.

“We must ensure that Andrew Wheeler is met with the same anger and effective organization that led to Pruitt’s resignation,” liberal megadonor Tom Steyer said in a statement. “Until we replace every last Republican in November, there will be no business as usual for those who seek to undermine our democracy and destroy our clean air and water.”

POWER PLAYS

— How did Pruitt survive this long? Pruitt’s most important relationship — and the one that kept him in this role months into his controversies — was that with the president. "Pruitt’s survival came from being in the line of eyesight — angling to hang around the West Wing while lavishing Trump with praise, telling the president he was 'brilliant' and a political revolutionary, according to people who have attended meetings with him," reports The Post's Josh Dawsey. "The two men also commiserated about the 'deep state,' along with current and former aides, conspiring against them."

How Pruitt's firing went down: The man who made himself famous for telling reality-show contestants "You're fired" did not work up the will to say so to Pruitt. “In the end, according to two administration officials familiar with internal discussions, Trump forced Pruitt out Thursday without speaking to him — instead having his chief of staff call the Environmental Protection Agency around midday to say it was time for Pruitt to go,” Dawsey writes. Pruitt was not in the office at the time.

Why now? Pruitt’s final downfall was caused by a culmination of weeks of negative press coverage. “No final straw,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday. “Look, Scott is a terrific guy. And he came to me and he said I have such great confidence in the administration. I don’t want to be a distraction. And I think Scott felt that he was a distraction.”

Pruitt's chief foe: John F. Kelly. The White House chief of staff "had for months privately groused about Pruitt’s conduct and had pushed for his removal during West Wing meetings, according to White House officials who were not authorized to speak publicly," The Post's Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report. "The accumulation of several new revelations about Pruitt’s conduct allowed Kelly to make a convincing case to Trump on Thursday’s flight out West that the stories about the administrator’s behavior would not stop, according to a senior administration official."

— Regrets? Pruitt has zero: In his resignation letter to Trump, the outgoing EPA chief does not apologize for any of his ethical problems. Instead, Pruitt casts himself as the victim in a fawning letter to the president. He writes "the unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family, are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us."

The letter is also somewhat of a love note to Trump. Pruitt uses variations of the word "serve" nine times. Only once does Pruitt say he is serving the "American people." In each other instance, Pruitt says he is serving the president.

"I don't want to say his faith isn't real, but he's certainly not living up to the faith that he says he has," Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) told CNN upon reading the resignation letter. "I don't want to make any broad conclusions except that it's always weird when you have somebody who is so unethical blends in all the God stuff."

Read the entire resignation letter from Trump's "Faithful Friend" Pruitt below:

Mr. President, it has been an honor to serve you in the Cabinet as Administrator of the EPA. Truly, your confidence in me has blessed me personally and enabled me to advance your agenda beyond what anyone anticipated at the beginning of your Administration. Your courage, steadfastness and resolute commitment to get results for the American people, both with regard to improved environmental outcomes as well as historical regulatory reform, is in fact occurring at an unprecedented pace and I thank you for the opportunity to serve you and the American people in helping achieve those ends.

That is why it is hard for me to advise you I am stepping down as Administrator of the EPA effective as of July 6. It is extremely difficult for me to cease serving you in this role first because I count it a blessing to be serving you in any capacity, but also, because of the transformative work that is occurring. However, the unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family, are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us.

My desire in service to you has always been to bless you as you make important decisions for the American people. I believe you are serving as President today because of God’s providence. I believe that same providence brought me into your service. I pray as I have served you that I have blessed you and enabled you to effectively lead the American people. Thank you again Mr. President for the honor of serving you and I wish you Godspeed in all that you put your hand to.

Your Faithful Friend,

Scott Pruitt

— The Pruitt revelations never stopped... Less than an hour before the president announced Pruitt’s resignation, the New York Times reported that a former EPA aide, Madeline G. Morris, was fired after she questioned the practice of deleting sensitive information from Pruitt's calendars, a practice she was worried was illegal. CNN had also reported Thursday that Samantha Dravis, another ex Pruitt aide, told the House Oversight Committee her old boss had told her about his hope of becoming attorney general.

...and the investigations will continue: The EPA’s inspector general told CNN any ongoing investigations into Pruitt will continue even as he leaves office. And on Thursday, there were even more calls for probes into the now former administrator. Democratic Reps. Beyer and Ted Lieu (Calif.) sent a letter to the agency’s internal watchdog to ask for a probe into the “secret” calendars Pruitt's aides reportedly kept.

— Who is happy and who is not: 

  • Oil and natural gas folks were generally sour to see an ally leave the EPA. Dan Eberhart, chief executive of oil field services company Canary LLC and a prominent donor to Trump, told The Post that Pruitt made questionable personal choices but was the president’s “most effective ally.”
  • Meanwhile, corn growers thought Pruitt's resignation will “bring a fresh start in embracing the nation’s renewable fuel law,” the Quad City Times reports. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), one of the corn-based ethanol industry's biggest booster in Congress, said Trump "made the right decision. Administrator Pruitt’s ethical scandals and his undermining of the president’s commitment to biofuels and Midwest farmers were distracting."

— "An early Trump supporter": Trump also told reporters abroad Air Force One that Wheeler "was very much an early Trump supporter." Trump added: "He was with us on the campaign. He is a very environmental person. He's a big believer."

Fact check: Whether or not that is true depends on how you define "early." In February 2016, Wheeler called Trump a "bully" in a six-point critique on Facebook urging his friends to vote against him in the GOP primaries. But Wheeler told The Post last year he was finally swayed four months, in June 2016, later when Trump spoke at a closed-door fundraising dinner held by Robert Murray, the coal baron. Wheeler then joined the Trump campaign as one of two volunteer energy and environmental policy consultants.

— EPA policy changes chug along: The Trump administration is planning to replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan with a watered-down version that would call for the less stringent regulation of coal-fired plant emissions by making efficiency improvements, the New York Times reports. The EPA is drafting the proposed replacement and will soon send the draft to the White House to approve.

— Cancer report suppressed: The Trump administration has blocked a draft report from the EPA that warns about formaldehyde vapor inhalation, a decision which may now be passed on to the acting EPA head. The EPA's draft health assessment was finished at the tail end of the Obama administration, Politico reports, and says that most Americans inhale enough of the chemical every day that it can put them at risk of developing leukemia and other illnesses. A current and former EPA official told Politico “top advisers to departing Administrator Scott Pruitt are delaying its release as part of a campaign to undermine the agency’s independent research into the health risks of toxic chemicals.” Wheeler, the acting chief of the EPA, has also been involved with earlier versions of the formaldehyde study, Politico reports. He was the staff director for Sen. Inhofe when he tried to delay an earlier version of the health assessment.

— How Pruitt’s fall played on Twitter:

Early Pruitt critics, like Reps. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), expressed relief and joy at his ouster...

...and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who soured on Pruitt over his policies on corn-based ethanol, was glad to see Wheeler in charge...

...while others, like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), finally decided to speak out strongly against Pruitt: 

Nearly every environmental group rushed to make a statement crowing about Pruitt's demise. But watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington chose a simple approach:

And finally, there is a case to be made that Kristin Mink, the sixth-grade teacher who confronted Pruitt at a Washington restaurant this week, precipitated his ouster. She already knows who she wants to talk to next:

Politics
The outgoing EPA administrator was facing more than a dozen federal inquiries into his behavior when his resignation was abruptly announced on Thursday.
The Washington Post
THERMOMETER

— Flood folly: If damage to a flooded home is more than half the home's value, federal officials are supposed to require demolition or elevation. But what happens instead, according to a new investigation by the Houston Chronicle, is that the government lowballs damage estimates so physically and emotionally devastated flood victims can keep their houses. 

The findings: “The Chronicle examined claims records for more than 36,000 ‘severe repetitive loss’ properties – the most frequently flooded properties in the flood insurance program nationwide,” per the report. “About 16 percent had evidence of being substantially damaged – beyond the 50 percent threshold – at least once before flooding again. This data suggests their damage assessments were too low or not enforced… The extent of repetitive losses has long been known, but the Chronicle's analysis of federal data shows that manipulated damage assessments are a significant underlying problem.”

The result: Residents in flood-prone communities stay put — and stay at risk.

Zooming out: The National Flood Insurance Program will run out of funding at the end of the month if Congress does not reauthorize it. In the meantime, lawmakers are putting forward suggestions for how to adjust the indebted program.

OIL CHECK

— Europe first? The Trump administration, along with Republicans in Congress, wants to encourage offshore wind development to boost American jobs and energy production. But the biggest beneficiaries of a potential offshore wind boom may be top renewable energy companies in Europe, Reuters reports. "Less experienced U.S. wind power companies, meanwhile, have struggled to compete in their own backyard, according to lease data and interviews with industry executives. Many are steering clear of the opportunity altogether, concerned by development costs and attracted to cheaper options on land."

— IP-no? A public offering for Saudi Arabia’s state-run oil company, Saudi Aramco, may not happen after all after months of talk and anticipation from kingdom officials and Wall Street investors about what would have become the world's largest publicly traded company.

Why? The Wall Street Journal reports that "doubts have crystallized in recent months, after two years of work to prepare Aramco for its debut. Saudi officials and people close to the process say the company and the country simply aren’t ready for an IPO that could raise $100 billion but also bring unprecedented scrutiny to the kingdom’s crown jewel.”

— The road ahead for Tesla: Investors in the electric carmaker are now wondering whether chief executive Elon Musk’s self-styled “nano-manager” approach will be sustainable going forward, following the company’s long-anticipated production goal of 5,000 Model 3 sedans a week. “The chief executive had created a makeshift factory under a tent in the carmaking plant’s parking lot,” The Post’s Drew Harwell reports. “He torqued bolts on the assembly line and emailed employees about shadowy forces. He slept on the factory floor…. But that same energy has also made Musk one of the most polarizing corporate leaders in America, a brash and demanding captain of industry who risks overshadowing his own creation.”

— “Superfluous” goals: Ben van Beurden, the chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell, said setting emissions goals only opens companies up to potential lawsuits. “The moment you adopt a target and you cannot quite deliver against elements of it, you immediately have class-action lawsuits from shareholders,” he said at an event Thursday, according to the Financial Times. “This is not a practical way to run the company.” He added that emissions targets were “superfluous.”

California billionaire is financing an initiative campaign that would require half of electricity generated in the state by 2030 to come from wind, solar and other renewables. His Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona says it has collected enough signatures for a November ballot measure.
Los Angeles Times
DAYBOOK

Coming Up

  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans holds a legislative hearing on proper administration of water facilities on July 11.
  • The Wilson Center's China Environment Forum holds an event on "Streamlining China’s Environmental Governance" on July 12.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— Lightning vs. fireworks: In many states across the Lower 48 on Wednesday, Fourth of July fireworks celebrations coincided with lightning, The Post's Jason Samenow reports