Andrew Wheeler’s lobbying ties have come under increasing scrutiny now that he is at the top of the Environmental Protection Agency.
But the acting administrator has more latitude to meet with some of his former clients compared to others, federal ethics officials say.
Under the Trump administration’s ethics pledge, a political appointee cannot meet with anyone he or she has provided services for during the two years prior to joining the federal government — except under specific circumstances. That two-year window defines which companies and groups count as a “former client” in the eyes of federal ethics officials and which do not.
Since joining the EPA on April 20, Wheeler has met with multiple organizations and businesses that retained him in his capacity as a principal at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP. The list includes biodiesel producer Darling Ingredients; agriculture giant Archer Daniels Midland and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, all of which ended their financial relationship with Wheeler’s firm before April 2016.
“We’re very clear about what the definition of former client is,” Justina Fugh, senior counsel at EPA’s ethics office, said in an interview Friday. “You’re either in it, or you’re not. It’s a toggle switch.”
In Wheeler’s May 24 letter outlining his ethics obligations regarding former clients, he identified eight ones from which he needed to recuse himself when it came to EPA matters. Those included the nation’s largest privately owned coal company, Murray Energy; Sargento Food Co.; Underwriters Laboratories; Energy Fuels Resources Inc.; Growth Energy; International Paper; Martin Farms; and Xcel Energy.
Wheeler did attend three events with groups connected to International Paper, E&E News reported Thursday, including a June 6 meeting with the Business Roundtable's Energy & Environment Committee, a June 28 session with the American Forest & Paper Association's board of directors and a “stakeholder” meeting with AFPA and other organizations.
But the ethics pledge allows for federal officials to meet with a former client if the session is on subject that is “a matter of general applicability” and is “open to all interested parties.” Both the Trump and Obama administrations have defined an “open” session as one where at least five people are present, and the attendees represent a diversity of perspectives.
Melinda Pierce, legislative director for the environmental advocacy group Sierra Club, said in a statement that even if Wheeler was complying with the law, the recent meetings show that it took him “less than a month as acting EPA administrator to prove he can’t and won’t let go of his corporate polluter past.”
Wheeler has estimated that he represented about 20 clients with business before the federal government during his time in private practice. That portfolio included the Nuclear Energy Institute, the Domestic Fuels Solutions Group, Whirlpool Corp. and the chemical manufacturer Celanese Corp.
Under his recusal arrangement, his senior adviser Michael Molina screens his schedule for any potential conflicts of interest and consults with the ethics office should something arise.
“We’re trusting that they’re following the terms of recusal,” Fugh said. “And I believe that they are.”
She noted that Wheeler’s staff checked with EPA ethics attorneys when he was invited to speak in September to the National Energy Resources Organization (NERO), a nonpartisan, nonprofit group comprised largely of energy industry players. Wheeler chaired the group’s executive board from 2014 to 2015, according to Internal Revenue Service filings, and served as chairman emeritus from 2015 to 2016.
Fugh said that her office told Wheeler’s aides to decline the invitation because he had been affiliated with the group, even though he did not have a financial relationship with the group.
Lukas Ross, a senior policy analyst at the advocacy group Friends of the Earth, said in an interview Friday that Wheeler’s affiliation raises questions because of its membership and the fact that its executive director, Carole Goeas, is a Republican political fundraiser.
“Ultimately this is about the fossil fuel industry and a way to inject it into our politics in a way that’s dangerous for the climate,” Ross said.
NERO Chairman Laura Marshall Schepis rejected the idea that her group was affiliated with a specific viewpoint or party. “We have Republicans and Democrats, we have traditional fuels and renewables,” Schepis said, adding that NERO’s events are open to the public.
Schepis added that she respects “the decision” Wheeler and his colleagues made to decline the invitation. “We hope to welcome him next spring or summer as a speaker,” she said.
Several groups that had worked with Wheeler’s firm said that their recent conversations with him were unrelated to any past work he had done at FBD.
ADM spokeswoman Jackie Anderson said in an email that firm officials attended a meeting with Wheeler on the renewable fuels standard on May 24, which was “the first time we discussed EPA-related issues with Mr. Wheeler. Our previous work with Mr. Wheeler was several years ago around un-related food-issues.”
And Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the South Coast Air Management District, said that the district did retain Wheeler’s firm from 2010 to 2012, “but I cannot find any indication that Andrew Wheeler was a point of contact.”
The district’s executive officer, Wayne Nastri, met with Wheeler on June 22 to discuss its push for stricter nitrogen oxide emissions limits for heavy-duty trucks, Atwood added.
Despite the fact that ethics rules allow appointees to meet with clients they had outside a two-year window, Democrats are still pressing for a probe. Reps. Don Beyer Jr. of Virginia, Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Jamie Raskin of Maryland on Friday wrote a letter to the acting director of the Office of Government Ethics seeking a review of Wheeler's meetings with former lobbying clients.
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— EPA rolls forward with some Pruitt deregulation: A 700-page draft of the Trump administration’s plan to halt Obama-era fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks would increase fuel use in the United States by 500,000 barrels a day, Bloomberg News reports. The administration also says such changes “would reduce societal costs by about half a trillion dollars and reduce highway fatalities by up to a thousand lives annually,” through 2029. “The largest single source of the estimated savings comes from future spending on technology by the auto industry that can be averted by abandoning the Obama administration’s standards,” per Bloomberg. “It draws significantly different conclusions about costs and benefits than were made during the Obama administration, which estimated the rules would result in net benefits of about $98 billion.”
More on Wheeler’s deregulatory agenda: Wheeler has spent the first weeks as acting administrator of the EPA pushing forward some of the former EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s efforts to roll back Obama-era regulations and reversing others. But the New York Times writes that it’s all part of a more strategic deregulatory plan. “Mr. Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who served as Mr. Pruitt’s deputy, has brought a more disciplined approach to dismantling environmental rules. It is an approach that may take longer, but it may be more effective in standing up to the inevitable legal challenges,” the Times reports.
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— California is burning:
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- Meanwhile, the Ferguson fire near Yosemite National Park is still burning, destroying more than 53,000 acres. The fire, which was 30 percent contained as of Saturday night, will also keep major parts of the national park closed until August 3, per the Los Angeles Times. These are two of the 17 large blazes California crews are battling across the state, according to the National Park Service, Wootson and Williams report.
— Tariff woes: Top auto-manufacturing nations, including members of the European Union, Canada, Mexico, Japan and South Korea, are planning to meet in Geneva this week to determine a potential coordinated response to U.S. tariff threats. “Two officials said participants will explore the possibility of an international accord to cut tariffs on cars, although two other officials said this was not part of the formal agenda,” Bloomberg reports. “In recent weeks, EU trade officials have mulled the possibility of launching a sectoral negotiation among the world’s major auto-producing nations in the hopes of deterring Trump from imposing auto tariffs.”
Also: German automaker BMW announced it will increase the prices of two U.S.-made models in China because of higher costs due to tariffs on U.S. car imports. The company said in a statement to Reuters that it will hike the maker-suggested retail price of the X5 SUV by 4 percent and the X6 model by 7 percent.
— Big Oil’s earnings disconnect: Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Chevron Corp. all missed earnings estimates this quarter over issues that were not communicated with investors, leaving analysts in the dark over the end result. “At a time when dedicated refiners such as Phillips 66 and Valero Energy Corp. have become the rock stars of the earnings season, the integrated oil majors are struggling to meet optimistic estimates largely based on rising crude prices,” Bloomberg News reports.
— Iowa’s lone nuclear plant to close: NextEra Energy, which owns the only nuclear power plant in Iowa, announced late last week that it plans to shutter Duane Arnold Energy Center in 2020. That plan, which still requires approval from the Iowa Utilities Board, will cut short a deal between Florida-based Alliant Energy, which will pay NextEra $110 million to close the plant five years early, the Des Moines Register reports. A spokesman for Alliant told the Gazette in Iowa that the plant had become more costly than renewable energy sources. The closure will also have an impact on the plant’s about 500 employees, per the Gazette.
- The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission holds a conference on Tuesday.
- The Atlantic Council holds an event on “Deterring Russia: Proposed Sanctions Legislation and Implications for Energy” on Tuesday.
- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on “Examining EPA’s Agenda: Protecting the Environment and Allowing America’s Economy to Grow” on Wednesday.
- The Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment holds a discussion on the role of science in public policy on Thursday.
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