Andrew Wheeler, who took over as acting EPA chief July 9, says he will continue efforts to implement the Trump administration's agenda to roll back a host of Obama-era rules even as industry and other groups are hoping for a new opportunity to push the agency to reconsider prior stances adopted by his predecessor, Scott Pruitt.
In addition, Wheeler is pledging more transparency regarding agency activities than Pruitt, and is pushing back against renewed criticism of his prior job lobbying for a major coal producer, noting he also represented several other energy, food and manufacturing firms and has recused himself from issues directly involving those entities for two years.
“I would say that the agenda for the agency was set out by President Trump,” Wheeler told the Washington Post in an interview posted July 6. “And Administrator Pruitt has been working to implement that. I will try to work to implement the president’s agenda as well. I don’t think the overall agenda is going to change that much, because we’re implementing what the president has laid out for the agency.”
Nevertheless, some groups that had been at odds with Pruitt are sensing an opportunity to make their case anew with Wheeler, who is expected to take a more methodological approach to setting policy in part to improve the agency's chances of defending its work in court.
“It is almost like a reset . . . regardless of what the issue is,” one industry source says. Wheeler “doesn't have a boss he has to go along with now. He is the boss.”
This source is interested in setting up a meeting with Wheeler, but says “there are probably 1,000 other groups with 1,000 other issues trying to line up to get similar meetings. I don't know how long it's going to take to get time on the calendar.”
Examples of issues that could fall into this “reset” category include the future of EPA's renewable fuel standard, its forthcoming proposal to roll back Obama-era vehicle greenhouse gas rules, a long-pending proposal to scrap production limits on high-emitting “glider” trucks and Superfund cleanups, which had been a particular focus of Pruitt's.
Similarly, Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), the ranking member on the Senate environment committee, used Wheeler's elevation as an occasion to press him to take a range of transparency- and policy-related steps to “restore the American people's confidence in the agency's mission,” which he says was tarnished by Pruitt's behavior.
Among Carper's policy asks in a July 6 letter were maintaining limits on high-emitting “glider” trucks, scrapping a proposed science transparency rule, abandoning a draft plan to freeze vehicle GHG and fuel economy limits, implementing the new Toxic Substances Control Act in a tougher manner, and abandoning efforts to weaken existing air quality rules.
The biggest immediate shift appears to be regarding transparency. Politico reports that Wheeler will announce his travel schedule in advance, will “frequently” publish his full calendar and will hold media briefings for major new policies.
None of those things occurred under Pruitt, prompting criticism from environmentalists and others, as well as Freedom of Information Act lawsuits to force release of the former administrator's calendars.
“The more open we are, the better it is for everyone,” Wheeler told the Post, while also saying he would not criticize Pruitt. “That's how I cut my teeth on environmental law. And that's been part of my core beliefs in the agency and how I look at environmental issues. The more transparent we are, the better understood our decisions will be.”
'Diverse' Lobbying Clients
Wheeler is already facing criticism from some environmentalists over his prior lobbying work, charges they similarly leveled against him during his lengthy confirmation to be deputy administrator.
Many news stories refer to the new EPA chief as a former coal lobbyist -- given that one of his main clients was coal producer Murray Energy, a fierce critic of most EPA climate and air rules affecting the power sector.
But the agency's press office in a July 6 email said Wheeler had a “diverse group of clients, including those in manufacturing, energy, solar, trade associations, ethanol production, food production, and other vital American industries.”
“I get frustrated with the media when they report I was a coal lobbyist,” Wheeler told the Hamilton (OH) Journal-News. “Yes, I represented a coal company, but I also represented a cheese company. I represented a lot of different businesses, a lot of different interests.”
Other clients included utility Xcel Energy, Sargento Food, ethanol trade group Growth Energy, International Paper, Martin Farms, certification company Underwriters Laboratories and uranium supplier Energy Fuels Inc. (EFI).
Wheeler told the Post that he does not believe he is “biased” on any EPA issue, given that he represented a range of clients, did not specifically lobby EPA for more than the past two years and previously worked for Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and George Voinovich (R-OH), who “didn't agree on every issue.”
The agency also released Wheeler's May 24 ethics memo, in which he recuses himself for two years from issues related to his prior clients and does not seek waivers from Trump's executive order on ethics. The recusals extend until April 28, 2020.
The only EPA-related issue Wheeler is recused from addressing is the Energy Star appliance efficiency program, given that he recently lobbied on that program in an effort to defeat a GOP senator's amendment that would scrap the program's third-party certification requirement.
Nevertheless, CNN reports about environmentalists' concerns about Wheeler's past client EFI, which is seeking EPA contracts to clean up depleted uranium mines in the Four Corners region of the Southwest.
“He started off in the Senate, then went to a lobbying firm. Now he will be at a very high-ranking position at the EPA, where he will be in a position to make lots of decisions that could benefit his former clients,” Chris Saeger of the Western Values Project told the channel.
The agency cited Wheeler's recusal memo that says he will not participate in any issues related to EFI for two years. Wheeler has also recused himself from any discussions regarding the Energy Department's controversial plan to aid economically struggling coal and nuclear plants using the Federal Power Act and a Cold War-era defense statute.
During his interview with the Post, Wheeler signaled little change from Pruitt on some issues. For instance, he endorsed Pruitt's policy that members of the influential Science Advisory Board cannot serve if they have accepted an EPA grant. Pruitt and Wheeler both said the policy aims to eliminate conflicts of interest by board members.
Wheeler also charged that the “statutory directives” for EPA to address climate change under the Clean Air Act are “very small,” and said that limited interpretation of the agency's authority would be reflected in its forthcoming proposal to replace the Clean Power Plan utility GHG rule with a much narrower version.
However, he did offer a stronger dismissal than Pruitt of hard-line conservatives' call to scrap the 2009 GHG endangerment finding that forms the basis of all of EPA's climate rules.
“I consider that to be settled law,” he said, noting it was upheld by an appellate court and the Supreme Court declined to review that ruling. “There would have to be a major, compelling reason to try to ever reopen that. I don't think that's an open question at this point.” -- Lee Logan (firstname.lastname@example.org)