Acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief — and now Trump cabinet nominee — Andrew Wheeler heads into Senate confirmation hearings at 10 a.m. EST Wednesday, as the longest government shutdown in U.S. history has left the EPA mostly shuttered.
Wheeler, a former coal, petrochemical, and LNG (liquefied natural gas) lobbyist, has run America’s top environmental agency since ex-EPA chief Scott Pruitt resigned this summer under at least a dozen internal investigations.
The Pruitt investigations — now abandoned, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General reported in November — ranged from concerns Pruitt tried to use EPA staff to help arrange a potential Chick-fil-A franchise deal for his wife (and to help him buy a used Trump Hotel mattress), enlisted environmental law enforcement staff as his own unjustified 24/7 personal security detail (and to pick up his dry cleaning), and a $50 per night condo deal struck with a lobbyist.
Wheeler now faces confirmation hearings before the Republican-controlled Senate, as he did during his confirmation hearing to become deputy administrator. He won 53 votes at that time, including the votes of three Democrats, two of whom were voted out in 2018. Nonetheless, Senate Republicans would have enough votes to approve Wheeler’s confirmation even if he draws no bipartisan support.
A Steadier Hand?
This summer, Wheeler was broadly expected to display a steadier hand as he pursued the same anti-regulatory agenda as Pruitt.
“We're going to continue the same policies because these are the policies of President Trump,” Wheeler told USA Today as he took over from Pruitt. “These weren't the Pruitt policies. These aren't the Wheeler policies. These are the policies of the Trump administration.”
As head of the @EPA, Andrew Wheeler is supposed to regulate the coal industry. Instead, the former coal lobbyist is making it easier for his buddies to pollute our air. My plan to #EndCorruptionNow would slam the revolving door shut on ex-lobbyists like Wheeler. https://t.co/geMJTnkYSe— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) December 9, 2018
This summer, while Democratic politicians warned against Wheeler’s industry ties, some welcomed the suggestion that personal ethics scandals would end with Wheeler, a former Eagle Scout, at the EPA’s helm.
“I’m encouraged that there will be a number of differences between Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Pruitt in the way that they approach this important leadership role,” Senator Tom Carper, Democrat from Delaware, said to the newly installed acting EPA chief Wheeler at a Congressional hearing in August 2018. “For example, I don’t expect to hear as much as a peep from Mr. Wheeler today about used-mattress shopping or Chick-fil-A or fancy moisturizers.”
But while he has made fewer headlines than Pruitt, Wheeler has nonetheless strung together a series of scandals of his own — including not only his efforts to roll back environmental rules that save American lives, but also concerns he may have violated ethics pledges surrounding his lobbying clients and his liking and sharing of racist and far-right social media posts on his personal social media accounts, including tweets from an InfoWars editor and a Pizzagate figure and a now-deleted tweet linking to a video defending the controversial right-wing figure Milo Yiannopoulos.
'Blatantly Racist' Memes Revealed Amid Environmental Racism Concerns
Perhaps most notoriously, last year HuffPost reported that in 2013, Wheeler liked a meme depicting former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama in an image that was called “blatantly racist” by the Washington Post.
“Specifically, I do not remember the post depicting President Obama and the First Lady. As for some of the other posts, I agreed with the content and was unaware of the sources,” Wheeler said in a statement in October, responding to the revelations.
While Wheeler could face questioning about his beliefs on race as a result of that social media activity, it’s his professional actions that stand to pose the most harm to communities of color, advocates say.
In December, Wheeler signed an EPA proposal aimed at cutting federal regulations governing the neurotoxin mercury, rules that the Obama administration had calculated would prevent as many as 11,000 early deaths and offer $80 billion in health benefits to the American public per year.
“You don’t have to be a medical professional to understand that mercury, lead, and arsenic are some of the most dangerous toxins we know. But that pollution is prejudiced — these poisons disproportionately affect communities of color,” Dr. Elena Rios, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association, wrote in a column published by HuffPost on the Trump administration’s proposed rollbacks of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.
“Instead of keeping and strengthening standards that fight this deadly domino effect at its source,” she wrote, “Wheeler’s plan threatens to boost levels of mercury, soot, and other hazardous pollution in our air, water, food, and communities.”
Emails, Ethics, and Inhofe
DeSmog’s profile of Wheeler also includes the following incidents, which may be fodder for questions during the confirmation process:
December 4, 2018 The EPA was sued in U.S. District Court for failing to disclose public records that would reveal if Wheeler was in contact with his former employer, a lobbying firm employed by the fossil fuel industry, while acting as EPA Administrator. Faegre Baker Daniels, a law firm for whom Wheeler lobbied on behalf of the fossil fuel industry before joining the EPA, is suspected of having contact with Wheeler’s office during his tenure leading the agency. In confirmation testimony before the U.S. Senate, Wheeler pledged to avoid conflicts of interest with former business associates.
Days ago, a federal court ordered the EPA to release the emails under an open records request (performed under FOIA, or the Freedom of Information Act) within 10 months. “The revelations which FOIA'd emails uncovered about Scott Pruitt were unprecedented, shocking, and helped bring about his rapid downfall,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a press release calling for the Senate confirmation hearings to be delayed until the emails are released. “Given Wheeler and [EPA official Bill] Wherum's history of exclusively protecting polluter profits, we can only imagine what abuses these documents are likely to uncover.”
July 26, 2018 E&E News reported that since being sworn in April as Deputy Administrator to the EPA, working under Scott Pruitt, Wheeler had at least three meetings with former clients that “may have violated the Trump administration's ethics pledge and other promises he made to steer clear of potential conflicts of interest.” On June 26, the day before an interview with Bloomberg News where Wheeler said, “If I lobbied on something, I don't think it's appropriate for me to participate,” he had met with former client Darling Ingredients. The client had given Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting over $1.4 million over nine years — more than any other of the firm's clients except for Murray Energy.
May 2017 According to documents The Intercept and the watchdog group Documented obtained and reported on in 2018, Wheeler hosted campaign fundraisers for Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works senators John Barrasso and Jim Inhofe in May. [Federal Election Commission] records show that the senators also received donations from Wheeler's law firm's PAC in 2017. The Intercept reported that those same senators would decide on his appointment at the EPA in 2018.
January 2005 While working as an aide for Senator James Inhofe, Wheeler was accused of abusing his power to target his political opponents. In 2005, he worked with Inhofe to demand tax records from the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials and its sister group, State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators (STAPPA) after the groups had opposed an emission bill supported by Inhofe. In February 2018, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government accountability and transparency watchdog, told HuffPost the tax probe “raises serious concerns as to Wheeler’s judgment.”
Climate Science Denial?
Wheeler has also expressed some doubts on climate science, saying during his prior Congressional hearing that “I believe that man has an impact on the climate, but what’s not completely understood is what the impact is.”
(For the record, according to NASA, “The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is extremely likely (greater than 95 percent probability) to be the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented over decades to millennia.”)
Wheeler is well-known as a former coal lobbyist who represented coal mining behemoth Murray Energy, and his former clients also included the Canadian LNG exporter Bear Head LNG Corp. and the chemical company Celanese Corp.
That history, as well as his work for Senator James Inhofe, known for bringing a snowball onto the floor of Congress as an argument against global warming, has environmental groups offering grave warnings about Wheeler's qualifications for the job.
“Putting a coal lobbyist like Andrew Wheeler in charge of the EPA is like giving a bank robber the keys to the vault, making Tony Soprano the head of the FBI, hiring Palpatine to run the Galactic Senate, or putting the Hamburglar in charge of McDonalds,” Matthew Gravatt, the Sierra Club's Associate Legislative Director, wrote in a post opposing Wheeler's nomination.
Last year, the EPA's criminal prosecutions dropped to a record low, with 166 cases referred by the agency for prosecution — and after Wheeler rose from Deputy Adminstrator to the Administrator, referrals slowed even more dramatically than they had under Pruitt, a report by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility published January 15 found. While a Congressional mandate instructs EPA to keep a roster of at least 200 environmental law enforcement agents, by last April, the EPA had only 140 agents on staff, the report found.
“We’re reaching levels where the enforcement program is lacking a pulse,” executive director Jeff Ruch told the Associate Press.
More broadly, the EPA has lost over 1,600 staff since Trump took office, with many career employees leaving the agency. Currently, the EPA is hamstrung by the federal shutdown, which has left roughly 600 pollution inspectors and staff furloughed, according to the New York Times, and only 800 of the EPA's 14,000 employees deemed “essential” enough to keep working through the shut down.
I agree. This hearing can wait. With 95% of its workforce on furlough under the #TrumpShutdown, @EPA should focus its scarce resources toward enforcing environmental protections—not toward preparations for the Acting Administrator’s nomination hearing. https://t.co/JxGGwC1ueF— Senator Tom Carper (@SenatorCarper) January 14, 2019
Not on leave: the staff who helped Wheeler prepare for his confirmation hearing — a fact that sparked a warning from Senate Democrats, who wrote a letter to Wheeler warning him that he could be running “afoul” of federal law by using EPA staff who are not supposed to be working. The White House Office of Management and Budget responded with an opinion that Wheeler's use of staff during the shutdown was legal.
But it's perhaps those who have directly experienced the impacts of faltering environmental regulations that had offered the strongest warnings against the appointment of Wheeler as America's top environmental law enforcement agent.
After Wheeler propsed weakening the New Source Pollution Standards, which regulate the powerful greenhouse gas methane, Tambry Lee, a Marine Corps veteran, told the Center for American Progress about suffering health impacts from the Aliso Canyon gas leak and called for Wheeler as acting EPA chief, to strengthen, not weaken, the nation's environmental laws.
“I don't want what happened to my family to happen to others,” Lee said.
Main image: Andrew Wheeler being sworn in by then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Credit: U.S. EPA, public domain