Andrew Wheeler (far right) attends a closed-door meeting with Energy Secretary Rick Perry (center) and coal company CEO Robert Murray (to Perry's right) on March 29, 2017. Wheeler was then a registered lobbyist for the coal company; now, he's acting EPA chief.

Scott Pruitt’s Replacement at the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, Could Be Even Worse

Wheeler might be able to navigate his way around the agency more effectively than Pruitt—and therefore do more damage.

BY Kate Aronoff

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There’s absolutely no reason to suspect that, on the policy front, Wheeler will offer any improvement on Pruitt when it comes to filling up children’s lungs with toxins and rolling back regulations on major polluters.

Scott Pruitt is out of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), after being at the center of over a dozen federal investigations into his countless scandals. Andrew Wheeler—appointed as Pruitt’s second-in-command this spring—is in. And you shouldn’t trust him for one goddamn minute.

Wheeler started out in the Trump administration as a lobbyist, working for Murray Energy via the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels. Last December, In These Times published photos of Wheeler from a March 2017 meeting with Rick Perry on behalf of, and alongside, coal baron and aspiring super villain Robert Murray, Murray Energy’s CEO. Wheeler and Murray were on a tour of government agencies peddling Murray’s 16-point “action plan” for the Trump administration. Many of those steps—such as decimating the staff of the EPA, dismantling the Clean Power Plan and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement—have already been accomplished. 

Wheeler has also served as a vice president of the Washington Coal Club, a group of 300 pro-coal businessmen, policy wonks and lawmakers who meet once a month on Capitol Hill. He has lobbied for the utility company Xcel Energy, the natural gas firm Bear Head LNG and a number of other major polluters. 

One might think there would be laws against someone who was, until several months ago, employed by a coal company being put in charge of the agency tasked with regulating that same company. There are not. 

That Wheeler probably doesn’t share Scott Pruitt’s penchant for fancy lotion, fountain pens, mattresses, $43,000 sound booths and bargain Washington, D.C. sublets (among other things) might actually make him more dangerous than Pruitt, who treated his position at the agency as if he were a fancy little boy king. Having worked for the EPA from 1991 through 1995, Wheeler might also be able to navigate his way around the agency more effectively than Pruitt, who—despite his best efforts—wasn’t as ruthlessly effective as he might have hoped. 

Wheeler was previously a staffer for Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who’s perhaps most famous for throwing a snowball onto the floor of Congress to disprove the existence of global warming, and has criticized the scientific integrity of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for, well, publishing research proving the existence of climate change. 

There’s absolutely no reason to suspect that, on the policy front, Wheeler will offer any improvement on Pruitt when it comes to filling up children’s lungs with toxins and rolling back regulations on major polluters. If anything, he’ll be worse, precisely for the reasons that so many environmentalists worried about Pruitt before his cascade of scandals started to leak out of the agency several months ago—as coal slurry might leak out of an unregulated mine pool. 

Like a diesel engine free from fuel efficiency standards, Wheeler might be able to hum along repealing regulations without attracting the kind of public outrage that Pruitt did. After all, it was likely Pruitt’s most outlandish behavior that lead to his ousting, not the most horrifying—like opening the door to EPA rulemaking to the fossil fuel industry.

In his resignation letter to Trump, Pruitt cited “unrelenting attacks on me personally,” apparently referring to the investigative reporting done by the climate teams at Mother JonesThe New York Times, The Huffington Post and other outlets. Or he may have been referring to the Washington, D.C. teacher, Kristin Mink, who confronted Pruitt at lunch this past Monday over his policies and ethics violations while holding her 2-year old child, urging him to resign because “we deserve to have somebody at the EPA who actually does protect our environment.” 

Hopefully the “attacks” on Wheeler won’t be any rarer.

Kate Aronoff is a writing fellow at In These Times covering the politics of climate change, the White House transition and the resistance to Trump’s agenda. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff

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