Fresh off a long fought victory to rid the EPA of the scandal-plagued Scott Pruitt, Democrats and environmental groups have already turned their attention to the next head of the agency that is charged with protecting the nation’s air and water.
And while Pruitt’s ethical lapses provided easy fodder for their effort to oppose the Trump administration’s environmental record, the new leadership at the EPA — for the time being, Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler — brings years of steady Washington experience to the position, making the upcoming battles more about policy than personality.
“Elevating former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to head the EPA is only trading one fossil fuel friend for another,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass. “We must continue to fight the fossil-fuel entrenched interests that have gripped the EPA and want to undermine the public’s health and progress on climate action.”
The top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, led the Senate opposition to Wheeler’s 53-45 confirmation in April. But on Thursday, after Pruitt’s resignation, he said he would meet with Wheeler “to understand how he intends to get to work immediately to restore the public’s trust in the Environmental Protection Agency.”
He may already have the answer to his questions if Wheeler’s past is any indicator for his future atop the agency.
A former lobbyist for coal giant Murray Energy Corp. before returning to the EPA this year, Wheeler has vocally rebutted the need for increased federal environmental regulations throughout his career. Wheeler’s first work in the EPA came during the administration of former President George H.W. Bush, when he worked in the office of pollution prevention. Before his lobbying gig, he served as chief of staff to Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and was a staffer for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for approximately 14 years.
In his tweet announcing Pruitt’s departure, President Donald Trump emphasized Wheeler would “continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda.”
That would be welcome news to Capitol Hill Republicans, who throughout the months of scandal backed Pruitt for his enthusiasm to roll back environmental regulation that they argued were impeding the success of U.S. business. While those repeal efforts are still works in progress as they move through the lengthy public notice and comment circuit, Pruitt has set the stage for actions to eliminate Obama-era initiatives like the Clean Power Plan, which limited greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, and the “Waters of the U.S.” rule, which greatly expanded federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.
“It has become increasingly challenging for the EPA to carry out its mission with the administrator under investigation,” said Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., adding he “looks forward to the confirmation of the next head of the EPA. In the meantime, I know [Wheeler] is well prepared to continue the progress already made under President Trump.”
Wheeler is unlikely to receive warm congratulations for his promotion from Democrats. Only three Democratic senators — Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana — voted to confirm him as deputy administrator of the EPA in April, when the first wave of Pruitt scandals hung over the confirmation vote.
‘Assault on Human Health’
That deregulatory policy emphasis already has Democrats worried.
“I’m concerned that the Trump Administration’s assault on human health and the environment will continue long past Pruitt’s departure from EPA,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
During his confirmation process, Democratic lawmakers and environmental groups raised concerns that Wheeler’s past lobbying for fossil fuels would influence his behavior as a senior official responsible for environmental protection. Those same concerns surfaced as soon as Pruitt’s departure was made official.
“Like Pruitt, this veteran coal lobbyist has shown only disdain for the EPA’s vital mission to protect Americans’ health and our environment,” said Ana Unruh Cohen, managing director for government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Make no mistake: we’ll fight Wheeler’s pollution agenda with the same vigor as we did Pruitt’s.”
Pruitt’s deregulatory agenda was still a work in progress. While he had proposed or was in the process of proposing regulation repeals, Pruitt never reached the finish line for marquee efforts to roll back regulations. But all could be finalized in the coming months with Wheeler as head of the EPA. And he’ll have to contend with the lawsuits certain to be filed by environmental advocates seeking to block the rollbacks.
At the least, Wheeler has 210 days to serve as acting administrator, according to the federal vacancies law enacted as part of an omnibus spending bill in 1998. The clock would restart if the Senate rejects a nominee during that period.
It remains unclear if Trump — who has demonstrated willingness to put outsiders in charge of big agencies — would nominate someone other than Wheeler to the head the EPA. Senate Democrats have already begun to stake out the battle lines for a new confirmation fight. And in a Senate with 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats and independents, finding a consensus choice to unite Republicans will be hard.
“The American people’s disgust with Scott Pruitt should serve as blaring red siren for the Trump administration,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., the top Democrat on the Interior-Environment spending subcommittee. “Americans will not tolerate another EPA administrator whose primary goal is to fight the core mission of the EPA.
Watch: Lawmakers Take Different Approaches to Pruitt at Hearing