When former administrator Scott Pruitt stepped down and Andrew Wheeler took over, few who care about clean air, clean water, and climate change actually thought things were going to get dramatically better at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Wheeler, after all, came to the job after working as a coal lobbyist and a legislative aide to one of Congress’s most notorious climate deniers. Still, given that he’d actually begun his career as a special assistant in the EPA’s Pollution Prevention and Toxics Office, it wasn’t outlandish to wonder if Wheeler might represent at least some kind of improvement over his predecessor.
Short answer: He doesn’t. As hard as it is to picture an EPA less willing to fight for public health and the environment than the one we endured under Pruitt, Wheeler’s EPA is emerging as a credible candidate. As some of us suspected, the main difference between the two directors appears to be a matter of style. Whereas Pruitt’s brand of corruption was bumbling and often transparently self-serving, Wheeler’s is polished and insidious. But through their bad-faith actions, both men have been exceptional at perverting the agency’s mission and cultivating mistrust among its staff.
According to emails and other internal EPA documents received earlier this month by the Sierra Club and Clean Wisconsin as part of a federal public records request, in 2018 Pruitt pressured EPA scientists to overlook their own informed opinions about smog pollution in order to pave the way for a heavily polluting and water-guzzling manufacturing plant in southeastern Wisconsin. If built, the Foxconn flat-screen TV factory could have theoretically added 13,000 jobs to the area, burnishing the reputation of Governor Scott Walker—a friend to the Trump administration—at a crucial political moment in the governor’s reelection campaign. (FWIW, Walker lost.)
The emails and other documents reveal that Pruitt sought to waive federal limits on smog pollution in the region, thus sparing Foxconn, a Taiwan-based company, the expense of instituting new pollution controls at its factory. They furthermore reveal that Pruitt expected his agency’s experts to come up with data in support of the decision—which many of them felt they simply could not do. In the documents, demoralized scientists complain to one another about the inappropriateness of “[t]aking snippets of information out of context and not telling the whole story” and bemoan “intentional omissions” in studies being publicly released with the EPA’s imprimatur. One scientist admits that she is “in disbelief” at being asked to endorse Pruitt’s plan; a colleague replies that as an expert in the health effects of air pollution, he finds the decision “hard to digest and support.” (Interestingly, this week the Trump administration appears to be backtracking on the sweetheart deal it offered Foxconn, in part because new data from the EPA show that the smog situation in southeastern Wisconsin is worsening, and that now would not be a good time to add another pollution source.)
Just one day before the New York Times published its account of this sordid episode, another story broke about mendacity at the EPA—this one concerning the agency’s current director, whose testimony before Congress regarding the weakening of Obama-era fuel-efficiency standards is now under question. Defending the rollback to members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in April, Wheeler tried to downplay the sizable increase in emissions that it would bring. “I have been told by my staff that the CO2 reductions, the impact of the CO2 reductions are pretty similar to what the Obama administration proposal would have received under their—would have gotten under their proposal,” he told the committee.
Now these same lawmakers are demanding more information from Wheeler to support that claim. In an official letter to Wheeler sent last Thursday, they accuse him of “mak[ing] assertions about the proposal that you must know do not reflect the views of EPA’s expert staff,” of “repeatedly mischaracteriz[ing] the emissions impact of the proposed rule,” and of making public statements that have “deviated from the information that was provided to you and other EPA political appointees” by the agency’s scientists and other experts.
They strongly imply that Wheeler’s motivations for misleading Congress and the public are rooted in his desire to please the oil industry. “[It] is hard to discern any other purpose for the proposal,” they write, “since no entity in the automotive industry has requested such an extreme rollback of the current vehicle economy and greenhouse gas standards . . . The oil industry stands to reap the most benefit from the proposed rollback because Americans will be forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more for gasoline in less efficient cars.”
Taken together, these two developments paint a picture of an EPA where the science-backed opinions of career staff count for far less than the needs of corporate polluters. In March 2018— before Pruitt resigned in disgrace—I wrote that there were basically two EPAs, a split reflecting “deep tensions within an agency that’s currently torn between the best impulses of its hardworking scientists and the worst impulses of its administrator and his industry-coddling cronies.” Fifteen months and one administrative shakeup later, the point still stands. Nothing has changed. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.
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.
We’ve seen you at your best and, currently, at your absolute worst. But things are looking up for you again—just when we need you the most.
The agency’s first administrator built the EPA from scratch—and established the nonpartisan, antipolluter culture that the Trump administration has all but abandoned.
Plus, the EPA’s secret science rule is so “1984,” and Trump declares himself “very much into climate,” which is so “Pinocchio.”
A newly proposed rule would let Andrew Wheeler decide what kind of science is—and isn’t—allowed to inform our country’s public health protections.
Plus, the EPA wants kudos for complying with a legal settlement, and another Trump official flees into the arms of an oil company.
The agency aims to stop citizens from challenging pollution permits—while continuing to allow challenges from polluters who want to pollute more.
If Scott Pruitt gets booted from his EPA post, his new deputy, a former coal-industry lobbyist, could take his place.
Muzzling scientists, scrubbing websites, attacking journalists: all in a shameful day’s work for our bought-and-paid-for EPA administrator. It’s time to stop him.
To what lengths will Scott Pruitt go to undo the good work being done by his agency’s scientists, researchers, and staff?
Scott Pruitt is out—but can the new EPA chief escape Pruitt’s shadow of endless scandals, incompetence, and corruption?
In the administration’s ongoing war on environmental laws, the tactics can be subtle but the strategy is straightforward: Give corporate polluters every chance to fight the rules they don’t like.
Let’s not forget what America looked like before we had the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Our rivers caught on fire, our air was full of smog, and it stank (literally).
Trump officials tell NASA they’re not needed, political appointees interfere with chemical safety research, and former military brass tell Trump to stop denying climate change.
Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke are courting chaos—and calling it a victory for good governance.