With Pruitt Under Fire, Likely Successor Andrew Wheeler’s Coal Ties Deserve Scrutiny

April 6, 2018 | 6:34 pm
Derrick Z. Jackson

As ethics storm clouds build over Scott Pruitt, environmentalists eager for a new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency should beware.

That is because the odds-on next leader of the EPA is Andrew Wheeler. He has been an unabashed inside man for major polluters on Capitol Hill. He lobbied for coal giant Murray Energy, a captain in that company’s bitter war against President Obama’s efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and enact more stringent clean air and clean water rules.

Wheeler assisted the efforts of refrigerant companies to resist stricter ozone rules and represented Energy Fuels Resources, a uranium mining company that successfully pushed for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to shrink the size of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah 85 percent, despite all its riches in Native American archaeology and art.

Confirmation now up for a vote

Nominated last October by President Trump to be Pruitt’s deputy administrator, Wheeler’s confirmation has been in limbo. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fast-tracked Wheeler for a vote that could come next week, by filing cloture.

The evidence is abundant that Wheeler stands squarely with the agenda of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt to render the EPA as ineffective as possible. When Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times as Oklahoma attorney general between 2011 and 2017 on behalf of polluting industries, a top petitioner and co-petitioner in half those cases was coal giant Murray Energy. Wheeler was its lobbyist from 2009 to last year. Even with pro-coal President Trump well into his second year, CEO Robert Murray is still complaining in his current message on the company’s Website:

“Our industry is embattled from excessive federal government regulations from the Obama Administration and by the increased use of natural gas for the generation of electricity. In my sixty-one years of coal mining experience, I have never before seen the destruction of an industry that we saw during the Obama presidency.”

An action plan for rollbacks

Wheeler accompanied Murray to the now-notorious meeting a year ago with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the one in which Murray handed Perry a 16-point action plan “which will help in getting America’s coal miners back to work.” That plan ultimately became the framework of a proposal by Perry to bail out struggling coal and nuclear power plants (Wheeler was also a nuclear industry lobbyist).

That particular proposal was shot down by federal regulators, but Trump and Pruitt have made good or are making good on most of those 16 points, including the US pullout from the Paris climate accords, the rejection of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and slashing the staff of the EPA down to a level not seen since the 1980s attacks on the agency by President Reagan.

In suggesting that EPA employees be cut by at least half, Murray’s action plan claimed that the verbiage of Obama-era EPA rules were “thirty-eight (38) times the words in our Holy Bible.”

Wheeler has denied helping Murray draw up that document, but he certainly shares its sentiments, telling a coal conference in 2016, “We’ve never seen one industry under siege by so many different regulations from so many different federal agencies at one time. This is unprecedented. Nobody has ever faced this in the history of the regulatory agenda.”

Longtime Inhofe aide

Wheeler’s vigorous lobbying career came after serving as a longtime aide to the Senate’s most vocal climate change denier, Oklahoma’s James Inhofe. When the Trump administration announced Wheeler’s nomination, Inhofe hailed Wheeler as a “close friend.” That closeness was evident last May when Wheeler held a fundraiser for Inhofe, as well as for Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee that advanced his nomination by a party-line 11-10 vote. The Intercept online news service reported that Wheeler held the fundraisers after it was reported that he was under consideration to be Pruitt’s second in command.

Up until now, Wheeler has escaped the harsh scrutiny that has forced the withdrawal of some Trump appointees who were seen as embarrassingly close to industry, such as Michael Dourson’s failed bid to oversee chemical safety at EPA. Part of that was his good luck in being paired in his committee hearing last November with Kathleen Hartnett White, who spectacularly flamed out with her blatant skepticism about the sources of climate change, once calling carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas, the “gas of life.”

By contrast, Wheeler slickly held to dry, brief statements that climate change is real, while agreeing with Trump’s pullout of global climate change accords. He even tried to play the good Boy Scout. After Tom Carper of Delaware recited Scouting’s commitment to conservation, Wheeler said, “I agree with you that we have a responsibility in the stewardship of the planet to leave it in better shape than we found it for our children, grandchildren, and nephews.”

His long track record of lobbying suggests the opposite.