Three Ways Andrew Wheeler Can Help Restore the EPA’s Dignity and Mission

Scott Pruitt is out—but can the new EPA chief escape Pruitt’s shadow of endless scandals, incompetence, and corruption?

July 13, 2018
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler prepares to address staff.

Ting Shen/Reuters

Plenty has been written in the past week about Andrew Wheeler, who has taken over as interim EPA administrator after Scott Pruitt’s abrupt yet way overdue resignation. (Some of us were even writing about Wheeler months ago!) Most of the articles about Wheeler have focused on his past as a lobbyist for the coal industry and as a staffer for Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, the most notorious climate denier in Congress. And none of them evinces any hope that the EPA is suddenly going to reverse course under Wheeler and return to its pre-Pruitt public-interest roots. If anything, the collective subtext of the media coverage seems to be that Wheeler—from a day-to-day administrative standpoint—will simply be Scott Pruitt minus all the jaw-dropping corruption and equally stunning incompetence.

Nevertheless, Wheeler, to his credit, does seem interested in differentiating himself from his predecessor and former boss. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, he struck a moderate, even conciliatory, tone with regard to transparency and staff relations—two areas that proved to be sticking points (to put it very mildly) for Pruitt, whose tenure was characterized by paranoia and employee demoralization. And earlier this week, Wheeler made a point of letting the EPA’s staff know that he believed in their work and that they had his full support in carrying out the agency’s “vital mission of protecting human health and the environment.”

The Trump International Hotel as seen from outside the EPA headquarters.

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

In truth, America is still so traumatized by Pruitt’s string of assaults on human health, the environment, and common decency that we really do want to believe Wheeler when he says (or at least implies) that he’s going to be a very different kind of EPA chief. With that in mind, I’d like to extend to him the benefit of the doubt . . . for a little while, at least.

So: Mr. Wheeler, if you truly want to distinguish yourself from the ignominious example of Scott Pruitt, here are three things you can do right now to instill faith in a public that wants to see you—and, by extension, the EPA—succeed.

1. Forcefully Acknowledge the Reality—and Human Cause—of Climate Change.

In your interview with the Washington Post, you went there . . . or halfway there. “I do believe climate change is real,” you said. “I do believe that people have an impact on the climate.” Unfortunately, you then went on to equivocate by suggesting, ridiculously, that fighting climate change by limiting carbon pollution—as the Clean Power Plan does—may not actually fall under the EPA’s purview; as a result, you immediately lost credibility on the issue. You situated yourself on the opposite side of the mayors, states’ attorneys general, senators, business leaders, and (literally) millions upon millions of citizens who have urged this administration to reinstate the plan, which represents our country’s best shot for tackling emissions in a significant way.

You can restore some of that credibility, however. In your first major press conference, reiterate your stated belief that climate change is real and that our emissions are the root cause of it. But go one step further by acknowledging, publicly, that we have to immediately resume working with the global community to fight it. So far, you seem pretty good at implying things. If you can’t yet bring yourself to declare outright that President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement was a disastrous mistake, then at least imply it somehow. We’ll all be watching and listening closely; we’ll get your drift.

Stop Andrew Wheeler

2. Play Down Your Past Coal Connections; Play Up the Potential of Renewables.

Much has been made—and rightfully so—of your work as a lobbyist for the coal industry. Addressing the topic earlier this week, though, you almost appeared a little sheepish about it, emphasizing that much of the work was actually related to helping coal miners obtain better health care, benefits, and pensions. (And look, I totally get it. If I had ever lobbied for the coal industry, I wouldn’t want to draw attention to the whole dirty, coal-burning, climate-destroying part of it either!)

So here’s your chance to reframe that chapter of your life. Every time you get asked an embarrassing question about your connections to the coal industry, answer by saying: “Yes, it’s true—I used to work for Big Coal. But that was in the past. Now I’m the administrator of the EPA, and as such it’s my job to find ways of reducing pollution from our energy sources. That’s why I’m so excited about the incredible progress being made by wind and solar all across the country. Investment is way up; scalability is getting closer every day; and—most important—in states like California, where renewables are strong, emissions are falling dramatically. You can ask me about my coal lobbying past, if you want, and I’ll answer you forthrightly. But I’d much rather talk about the renewable energy future.” See? The script practically writes itself!

3. Don’t Hide Yourself—or What You’re Doing—From the American People.

Scott Pruitt, in the end, was never interested in being a public servant. That’s why he so assiduously avoided the public (except when he had no choice).

If you decide that you want to take seriously this aspect of your new role—and there are early signs that you do, based on your recent words, actions, and interviews with real journalists—then never, ever forget that you don’t work for just one man. And you certainly don’t work for a consortium of oil and gas interests, or for the coal industry. You work for us. So make sure to put us, and our health, and our environment first—and then let us know what you’re doing, by always being completely honest and transparent.

Would doing any, or even all, of these three things make up for the damage that your old boss has done? No, absolutely not. But were you to signal your willingness to move away from his horrid example in this manner, you’d at least be off to a hopeful start. And then maybe you could get going on rolling back some of the EPA’s recent rollbacks. We, the people (aka your new boss), have a few in mind.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
 

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