Scott Pruitt’s long record of misdeeds and malfeasance finally seems to have caught up with him. Whether his numerous scandals, recently making headlines, will cost him his job as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is still an open question. President Trump has been tweeting his support of his EPA administrator, doing whatever he can to dispel growing rumors of an imminent firing or an abrupt resignation. But given the drip-drip-drip of near-daily revelations, it’s safe to assume that news editors already have their Pruitt postmortems written, copyedited, and ready to publish at a moment’s notice. In this administration, a statement of support from the White House shouldn’t be taken as a sign that one’s job is safe. (Indeed, it’s often an ominous prelude to termination. Just ask H. R. McMaster or Rex Tillerson.)
Meanwhile, there’s another big EPA story that’s deserving of our attention but getting far less of it. Yesterday a slim majority of senators approved Andrew Wheeler to be the EPA’s deputy administrator―the person who could end up running the agency should the current administrator suddenly decide (as so, so many Washingtonians before him have decided) that he really wants to spend more time with his family.
If you’re hoping Wheeler could represent some sort of departure from Pruitt’s (literal) scorched-earth agenda, he wouldn’t. While it may be impossible to imagine anyone worse than Pruitt to lead our nation’s environmental policy, plenty of individuals could be just as bad. And as he’s shown us on numerous occasions, President Trump has a sixth sense for ferreting these people out and putting them on the executive-branch payroll.
So who is Andrew Wheeler? And what is it about his particular career trajectory that makes the White House, energy-company executives, and assorted climate deniers think he’s a perfect fit for the Trump-era EPA?
Well, for starters, his most recent job was as an energy lobbyist. His biggest clients included Murray Energy Corporation, which proudly bills itself as the largest coal mining company in America, and whose CEO, Robert E. Murray, vigorously fought the Obama administration’s attempts to reduce carbon emissions and strengthen environmental and public health laws. Shortly after Trump took office, Murray, an unabashed climate denier, presented Vice President Mike Pence with a ridiculously pro-coal “action plan” that called for doing away with the Clean Power Plan, withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, eliminating federal tax credits for renewable energy, and—yes—halving the EPA’s workforce.
In his spare time, Wheeler serves as the vice president of the Washington Coal Club, a powerful yet little-known federation of more than 300 coal producers, lawmakers, business leaders, and policy experts who have dedicated themselves to preserving the uncertain future of our dirtiest fossil fuel. Wheeler clearly loves coal, but he’s also made time to lobby the U.S. Department of the Interior to open portions of the Bears Ears National Monument to uranium mining.
It gets worse. Before joining his current K Street lobbying firm, Wheeler worked as a legislative aide to Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe. Inhofe is without question the most virulent climate denier on Capitol Hill—a man who regularly refers to the science of climate change as “the greatest hoax” ever perpetrated on the American people and who told one radio interviewer that educating schoolchildren on the basics of climate science was tantamount to “brainwashing.” When Wheeler’s nomination was announced last year, Inhofe effusively praised the decision, saying that “there is no one more qualified than Andrew to help Scott Pruitt restore EPA to its proper size and scope.” (The italics are mine; the anxiety that they denote should be everybody’s.) In that same statement, Inhofe referred to Wheeler as his “close friend”; indeed, the two are close enough that Wheeler thought it perfectly appropriate to organize a fund-raiser for Inhofe last May, an act that many believe crossed ethical lines.
The line on Wheeler from people in the know is that he’s essentially Scott Pruitt’s ideological twin—but that his many years as a Washington insider have endowed him with a political savvy that Pruitt sorely lacks. Were the increasingly embattled Pruitt to leave, few believe that this replacement would deviate from Pruitt’s path of rolling back protections, propping up the moribund coal industry, and putting energy company profits ahead of public health.
From all accounts, Wheeler doesn’t appear to be a paranoid, self-aggrandizing morale destroyer with a highly developed taste for taxpayer-funded first-class travel. He has more friends than enemies in Washington and seems unlikely to shoot himself in the foot or otherwise self-destruct. In the end, that might actually make Wheeler even more dangerous than Pruitt—not less.
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