For months, Democrats agitated for the removal from office of former Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt.
But former and current Democratic officials aren't so sure that Pruitt's former No. 2, Andrew Wheeler, will end up being any better when it comes to policies they espouse. That's because as acting EPA head, which Wheeler is expected to remain for some time, he could more methodically proceed to unwind some of the more controversial aspects of President Barack Obama's regulatory agenda -- without the distracting controversy.
“It is a close call,” said Mindy Lubber, president of the sustainability nonprofit Ceres and a former EPA regional administrator under Bill Clinton.
She and other high-profile Democrats interviewed by The Post during last week’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco do not see Pruitt’s ouster as an unmitigated success.
Since taking the helm of the EPA two months ago, Wheeler -- a former lobbyist and Senate aide -- is charting a more careful course than Pruitt in rolling back Obama’s environmental agenda. Several of Pruitt’s ambitious yet quickly executed attempts to unwind Obama-era regulations have been struck down by the courts, leaving some administration allies to wonder whether that flurry of activity will fade away in the long-term.
Environmentalists now worry that Wheeler will be more careful in executing an environmental agenda that conservatives champion, sparking fears that such an agenda might actually stick.
“Pruitt was like Trump: In the phrase someone coined, a mixture of malevolence and incompetence,” said former vice president Al Gore. “And those two qualities sometimes cancel each other out.”
Gore added that Wheeler “may live up to his reputation for being careful in designing his initiatives to survive court scrutiny.”
Only a few weeks after taking over, Wheeler’s EPA pulled back on an effort to forgo enforcing stricter pollution controls on a type of diesel freight truck known as “gliders.” After consulting with EPA lawyers and policy experts, Wheeler concluded the current rule “does not represent the kind of extremely unusual circumstances that support the EPA’s use of enforcement discretion,” according to a memo he issued.
And officials at the EPA and Transportation Department sparred for weeks over the summer behind the scenes over how to relax fuel-efficiency rules for cars and trucks in a way that can sustain legal challenges.
Though Wheeler ultimately backed the public proposal, the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality warned at one point that a draft contained “a wide range of errors, use of outdated data, and unsupported assumptions.”
Wheeler “really tried to moderate some of the proposals related to the clean-car rules, so I give him credit for that,” said Gina McCarthy, a former EPA administrator who served under Obama.
“He has an ability to make rules that are not on their face so wanton, the way Scott Pruitt did,” McCarthy added. Still, she cautioned that “doesn’t mean that I think he’s going to have an ability to overturn rules that were done based on the science and the law.”
Before being nominated by Trump as Pruitt's deputy, Wheeler spent a decade as a lobbyist for the sort of coal and mining firms the EPA regulates. Before that, he worked in various roles for Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the agency.
Even Democrats admit the years of experience give Wheeler an edge in wrangling the agency’s career staff to execute the Trump administration’s agenda.
“Wheeler is much smarter. He’s been around politics,” Lubber said. “He knows the world of the EPA, from inside and outside, and I think he has been consistent and tenacious in trying to find one regulation after the next to roll back.”
At the very least, according to Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Wheeler seems more likely to stay within certain legal lanes while Pruitt was tainted, he argued, by "personal corruption."
"I don't think he'll be a friend of the environment," Schatz said of Wheeler. "But I'd always rather somebody do things lawfully."
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—The latest on Florence: What’s left of Florence is all the water. And it’s still rising. “The rain stopped falling, but the water remains, endless water clogging up the highway, overwhelming gauges meant to measure rivers, stretching out in every direction,” The Post’s Rachel Siegel, Kristine Phillips and Mark Berman report. “Florence, the storm that brought the misery, has gone from a hurricane to a tropical depression to a meandering system that dropped rain over the Mid-Atlantic and southern New England on Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service. It left behind deaths in at least three states and carved an arc of destruction that had not fully become clear, though one preliminary analysis said could cost up to $20 billion in property losses.”
As of Tuesday, there were 33 confirmed deaths as a result of the storm, Siegel, Phillips and Berman report. There were also 1,100 roads still closed in North Carolina, 10,000 people still in the state’s shelters and more than 340,000 without power. And North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) urged patience. “Even though there’s no substantial rain now in the forecast and the sun may be shining, rivers continue to rise, and we will see more flooding,” Cooper said at a briefing Tuesday.
In the town in Lumberton, N.C., local officials are calling for improvements, including dam and levee upgrades, that were recommended following Hurricane Matthew in 2016 but that never came to fruition, The Post’s Sara Kaplan reports. Officials hope such change will mean “communities will be ready when the next hurricane comes. But some residents wonder whether it is worth the risk to stay.”
— President Trump is reportedly scheduled to travel to hurricane-hit areas in North and South Carolina on Wednesday: Specifically, the president will visit Myrtle Beach while he is in South Carolina, CNN reports, adding the state’s Republican senators, Lindsey O. Graham and Tim Scott, are scheduled to fly with him on Air Force One.
— Another 1,000-year rain event: Hurricane Florence produced so much rain over a massive area in southeast North Carolina and northeast South Carolina in a rainstorm that statistically has only a one in 100 chance of happening each year. Even more, in some areas, the deluge had a one in 1,000 chance of occurring. “These exceptional rainfall events keep happening and appear to be part of a trend toward more extreme tropical rainmakers, probably connected to climate change,” The Post’s Jason Samenow reports.
— “Don’t be fooled”: The president preempted any criticism of his administration's handling of Florence with a pair of tweets on Tuesday, saying that if and when such "ranting" starts it “will be a total lie.”
...that FEMA, our Military, and our First Responders, who are all unbelievable, are a disaster and not doing a good job. This will be a total lie, but that’s what they do, and everybody knows it!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 18, 2018
Meanwhile in a video message Tuesday, the president thanked first responders for efforts so far in responding to a storm that is "one of the wettest we’ve ever seen from a standpoint of water."
— FEMA frenzy beyond the storm: A top Federal Emergency Management Agency official, John Veatch, has been suspended without pay in connection with an investigation from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general over the improper use of government vehicles by agency chief William “Brock” Long, Politico reports.
Meanwhile at FEMA: The agency has also postponed a previously scheduled test of an emergency message system directly from the president that was set to pop up for cellphone users Thursday. FEMA said the test has been moved to Oct. 3 due to “ongoing response efforts to Hurricane Florence,” NBC News reports. “The initial announcement was met with concerns from social media users who stated that a direct message from President Donald Trump to the nation could be used for political purposes, similar to how he uses his official Twitter page."
— Another day, another rollback: The Trump administration has formally announced a plan to ease requirements that oil and gas operations on federal and tribal lands capture the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports, adding it’s the “fourth rollback of a major federal climate rule in less than two months.”
The Bureau of Land Management rule, adopted in 2016, “required operators to capture methane leaks, install more modern controls and develop a plan to reduce the release of the heat-trapping gas, which, for the first 20 years after being released into the atmosphere, is roughly 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. The new rule largely eliminates those requirements, including limits on how much methane can be released and burned off."
— EPA inspector general resigns: Arthur A. Elkins announced Tuesday that he will retire from the federal government next month. Since 2010, Elkins has served as the inspector general at both the EPA and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. Elkins has a new, as-of-now-unannounced position outside of federal government, according to a news release. His departure comes as his office is still investigating several of Pruitt's spending and managing decisions, which led to the EPA chief's resignation.
— Door revolves again: Ann Navaro, a Trump administration official who most recently served at counselor to the solicitor at the Interior Department, is leaving government to work for the law and lobbying shop Bracewell, the firm announced this week.
— Tariff woes: China said Tuesday it would strike back against Trump’s tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports, “vowing it would immediately retaliate when they take effect and threatening a protracted dispute that could raise the prices of household goods in both countries,” The Post’s Danielle Paquette reports. The tariff standoff risks "further U.S. trade actions that could result in what some analysts are calling an economic Cold War," Paquette and David J. Lunch reports. "By next week, the United States and China appear likely to be on the brink of slapping tariffs on their entire goods trade, which exceeds $635 billion annually."
— “Redtide Rick has got to go”: Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) was confronted by angry protesters at a campaign event Monday over the toxic algae bloom that has spread across the coast, killing marine life and apparently causing respiratory issues, The Post’s Lindsey Bever reports. “Protesters crowded outside the restaurant holding signs reading ‘Redtide Rick’ and calling the governor a ‘coward’ — forcing him to enter and, only minutes later, leave, through the back door,” according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “Video shows Scott quickly leaving and getting into a black SUV as supporters held up signs reading ‘RICK SCOTT FOR SENATE’ among a crowd of protesters.”
— Won't someone save the giraffes? Environmental groups have launched a lawsuit against the Trump administration in an attempt to urge new protections for giraffes. The groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Humane Society International, Humane Society of the United States and the Natural Resources Defense Council, filed a notice of intent to sue the administration after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to respond to a legal petition to list giraffes under the Endangered Species Act. “Africa now has fewer giraffes than elephants, but the administration refuses to throw these imperiled creatures a lifeline," Tanya Sanerib, the Center for Biological Diversity’s international program legal director, said in a statement.
— The road ahead for Tesla: Shares of the electric automaker dropped more than 4 percent Tuesday following initial reports that the company is facing a criminal investigation by the Justice Department following remarks from chief executive Elon Musk that he was considering taking Tesla private. “Department investigators requested documents from the company last month related to Musk’s announcement and the company has complied, Tesla spokesman Dave Arnold said,” according to The Post’s Drew Harwell, Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky. “It is unclear how advanced the investigation is, and there’s no guarantee the probe will lead to any criminal charges or other enforcement action. But a person familiar with the investigation said it is a fraud probe seeking to determine whether Musk’s statements were meant to mislead investors." The electric-car maker is also facing a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation and multiple shareholder lawsuits over the Twitter announcement.
Meanwhile: Tesla may be facing other concerns, like the slew of electric auto challengers that are soon to hit the market. On Monday, Audi launched its new electric SUV in California on the “home turf of rival Tesla Inc, and highlighted a deal with Amazon.com Inc to make recharging its forthcoming e-tron models easier,” Reuters reports. The announcement makes for "one of a volley of electric vehicles" coming from Volkswagen and Daimler, as well.
— Trump’s oil sanctions are working: Some were concerned about a spike in oil prices or continued trade between international companies and Iran after Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Obama administration's nuclear agreement with Iran and move to reimpose sanctions on the country. “But the policy has been effective without either of those nasty consequences, at least so far,” per the New York Times. “Nearly two months before American oil sanctions go into effect, Iran’s crude exports are plummeting. International oil companies, including those from countries that are still committed to the nuclear agreement, are bailing out of deals with Tehran. And remarkably, the price of oil in the United States has risen only modestly while gasoline prices have essentially remained flat.”
— Within striking distance: A major steelworkers union is inching closer to a strike, voting to authorize action that “could derail the industry’s growth at a time when President Trump has touted its resurgence,” The Post’s Jeff Stein reports. Stein reports from Pittsburgh, where 15,000 workers at plants owned by ArcelorMittal unanimously moved to give the committee bargaining for new contracts the authorization to call a strike within two days. “That followed a similarly unanimous vote to authorize a strike from about 16,000 workers of U.S. Steel,” Stein writes. “Together, the two companies account for nearly 25 percent of U.S. steel production, and a strike could hold back the industry at a time when it is benefiting from federal intervention aimed at boosting production and employment."
— A pressure problem: The pressure in natural gas pipelines that sparked a number of explosions and fires in Massachusetts last week was 12 times higher than it should have been, the Associated Press reports. The state's Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey sent a letter Monday "seeking answers about the explosions from the heads of Columbia Gas, the company that serves the communities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, and NiSource, the parent company of Columbia Gas,” per the report.
- The German Marshall Fund holds a roundtable on the digital energy nexus on Thursday.
- National Journal hosts a discussion on the changing energy grid on Thursday.
- The Heritage Foundation holds an event on “The Fuel Cell Corporate Scandal in Delaware” on Friday.
— Michael Jordan has pledged $2 million for hurricane relief efforts in North Carolina: