Scott Pruitt, whose tenure at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was tarred by corruption scandals and hostility to environmental regulation, offered his resignation today, effective July 6.
DeSmog's prior profile of Wheeler reports:
Wheeler is the latest former staffer of climate change denier James Inhofe to join the EPA. Prior to joining FaegreBD Consulting, Wheeler worked as majority staff director, minority staff director and chief counsel at the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works for Inhofe. He worked in a similar vein at the Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate Change, Wetlands and Nuclear Safety under the chairmanship of Inhofe and also that of George Voinovich. Before that, he worked as Inhofe's chief counsel from 1995 to 1997.
Under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Wheeler spent four years as a staffer at the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics before moving on to his position at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Until mid-2017, Wheeler lobbied on behalf of Murray Energy, the nation's largest privately owned coal company. Run by vocal climate change denier Robert Murray, the energy company has fought against industry regulation and climate change mitigation efforts. According to EcoWatch, Wheeler brought in at least $3 million in income for his firm from Murray Energy.
Murray Energy, while Wheeler's client, produced an “Action Plan” for the Trump Administration including complete elimination of the Clean Power Plan, overturning the endangerment finding for greenhouse gases, and eliminating tax credits for wind and solar energy. In his confirmation hearing, Wheeler admitted to having seen the plan.
According to his profile at Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting, Wheeler “worked on every major piece of environmental and energy-related legislation over the last decade, including greenhouse gas emissions legislation, the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the Clear Skies Act and the Clean Air Interstate Rule.” The consulting firm also notes that Wheeler has worked on 1998 and 2005 Highway Bill reauthorizations, the Diesel Emissions Reduction SEP Bill, and Renewable Fuel Standards. His regulatory work includes “all major fuel related issues including Refinery MACT, Gasoline sulfur, and the NSPS program.”
“Andrew Wheeler’s nomination is very much in keeping with the Trump administration’s agenda of fossil fuel exploitation and climate inaction,” Michael Mann, a climatologist at Penn State University told HuffPost.
Pruitt Out, Wheeler In
Reaction from environmental organizations was swift.
“We say to Scott Pruitt: Good riddance,” Food and Water Watch said in a statement moments after the resignation was made public. “We say to Donald Trump: We will continue to oppose your cabinet’s agenda to serve billionaires and corporate interests, and we will continue to fight your administration’s attack on our environmental protections, whoever the next EPA administrator may be.”
Wheeler's record as a coal lobbyist drew immediate scrutiny — as did concerns about his record on ethics.
Wheeler, who until today served as deputy administrator under Pruitt, faces an ongoing ethics complaint from Public Citizen, a watchdog organization, according to CBS News. Wheeler’s tenure as a coal industry lobbyist only ended in May of 2017 — too recent to meet the requirement of Trump’s executive order number 13770, which requires waivers for government officials overseeing industries they lobbied for in the prior two years. Wheeler never obtained that required waiver, the ethics complaint alleges.
He's also under fire for hosting fundraisers for Republican politicians who were then considering his nomination as deputy administrator, which was first reported by The Intercept earlier this year.
He's the Vice President of the Washington Coal Club, supported Trump's withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Accord, fought climate-related bills in D.C. and helped push for exemptions from environmental laws and liability rules for chemical companies after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. During an earlier stint at the EPA in the 1990s, he helped to draft rules under the Toxic Substances Control Act related to how much information chemical companies needed to provide to regulators about new chemicals.
“Like Pruitt, this veteran coal lobby lobbyist has shown only disdain for the EPA’s vital mission to protect Americans’ health and our environment,” Ana Unruh Cohen, managing director for government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group, told The New York Times.
EPA's next administrator must be nominated by the president and approved by the Senate — shaping up a potentially significant decision that could be made by the Republican-controlled Senate prior to mid-term elections. It comes as Republicans also seek to appoint a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose resignation was announced on June 27, before those midterm elections results are in.
During his tenure, Pruitt was at the center of an extraordinarily long list of financial and ethics scandals. He may be remembered in the public imagination more for his obsession with his personal security — the sound-proof booth, the bullet-proof SUV, the $3 million 24/7 security detail — and his use of his position to enrich himself personally — the $50/night Capitol Hill rental, the first-class flights, the Chick-fil-A bid on his wife's behalf — than for environmental rollbacks he oversaw, which were significant.
Pruitt revoked regulations designed to improve the gas mileage of American auto fleets, roiling the vehicle manufacturing industry and dealing a signficant blow to efforts to curb climate-changing pollution from driving. He delayed controls for methane leaks from the oil and gas industry, a move courts later found was in violation of the law. His EPA is currently seeking to replace the Clean Power Plan with pollution rules for coal-burning power plants that are far more lax.
Pruitt's resignation letter, which Fox News published online, was unrepentant.
“Truly, your confidence in me has blessed me personally,” Pruitt's letter begins, “and enabled me to advance your agenda beyond what anyone anticipated at the beginning of your Administration.”
“With Pruitt out and Andrew Wheeler at the helm, the EPA Adminstrator will no longer be #BigOil's right hand man,” wrote Democratic Senator Ed Markey on Twitter, “it'll be King Coal's best lobbyist.”
The 'Inhofe Mafia'
Pruitt — who resigned while under multiple investigations by the EPA's inspector general (the agency's internal watchdog), the Government Accountability Office, the White House Office of Management and Budget, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel — sought to characterize his problems as “unrelenting attacks on me personally,” which he added were “unprecedented.”
His letter did not discuss the specific issues that are at the center of those investigations, which include an unprecedented amount of first-class travel to destinations like his home state Oklahoma or his lobbyist-arranged trip to Morocco to promote exports of liquefied natural gas from the U.S., multiple possible violations of federal lobbying rules, and claims of retaliation against his own staff.
Like Pruitt, Wheeler is closely tied to Senator James Inhofe. Senator Inhofe, a long-time climate science denier remembered for bringing a snowball into a Congressional debate to illustrate his doubts that the climate was warming, expressed support for Pruitt just two weeks ago, despite the long list of scandals that was enveloping the then-EPA chief.
“After the face-to-face with the administrator, I’m a little embarrassed that I was starting to doubt [Priutt] in some areas where he shouldn’t have been doubted,” Inhofe said during a June 20 news conference.
Wheeler is a former Inhofe staffer and known in D.C. as a member of the “Inhofe mafia,” or influential energy industry lobbyists — and ex-lobbyists, like Wheeler, who now work in the Trump administration — according to The New York Times.
“If the concern, though, is policy and public health protection and the way EPA functions, then I think Andy Wheeler can be counted on, unfortunately, to carry out exactly the same policies and reflect exactly the same ideology as Pruitt,” Joseph Goffman, executive director of the environmental law program at Harvard Law School, told The Chicago Tribune. “He is a member of the very same coalition Pruitt has been representing.”
The New York Times Editorial Board offered a sobering warning about that prospect.
“In the end, Mr. Pruitt was driven from office for having abused his position so outrageously,” the Times' editorial board wrote.
“But if Mr. Trump continues down the same policy paths, as seems likely, Mr. Pruitt’s more lasting legacy, along with the president’s, will be an overheated planet and shortened life spans.”
Updates to follow.
Main image: Andrew Wheeler being sworn in by then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Credit: U.S. EPA, public domain