Andrew Wheeler, who headed the EPA during the Trump administration, says he’s going to focus on issues such as the global recycling waste stream and the unintended consequences of environmental regulations in his new role as a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
In one of the first interviews he has given since leaving the Environmental Protection Agency, Wheeler told Bloomberg Law he’s also going to work on helping companies embed sustainability into their missions to avoid “just checking a box.”
Other parts of his post-agency life will focus on nudging companies and governments to look at environmental issues holistically, rather than narrowly scrutinizing one medium, such as air, water, or land.
Wheeler said he won’t lobby again and has no immediate plans to rejoin a law firm. A former principal at Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting, Wheeler drew fire from environmentalists and congressional Democrats because he formerly represented the coal industry.
He also praised current EPA Administrator Michael Regan for focusing on environmental justice and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a family of toxic chemicals known as PFAS.
“I’m not going to criticize at this point,” Wheeler said of Regan. “He’s only been on the job for a couple months, and it takes a little time to get a handle on the job and to pay attention to everything that’s going on at the agency. I like what’s he saying.”
Recovery From Chaos
While serving as administrator, Wheeler said he worked consciously to get the EPA on track after the chaos brought on by his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, who left the agency in July 2018 amid multiple allegations of mismanagement and misuse of taxpayer dollars.
As part of that mission, Wheeler said he made sure to involve career staff in his briefings. He said he benefited from the fact that he worked at the EPA for four years as a special assistant in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics and was familiar with the agency’s inner workings.
Anne Idsal Austin, who served as the head of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation under Wheeler, said he did stabilize the agency’s operations after Pruitt’s exit.
“Once there was that turnover, things calmed down considerably,” said Austin, now a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. “He was able to take it from a whiplash state of, ‘Go do this and go do that’ to a calmer environment for careers and politicals.”
Regan has said several times that he inherited an agency with low morale. During his first all-hands meeting with EPA staff—which was shared with Bloomberg Law by an agency employee who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly—Regan said he’s aware that many feel the EPA’s guiding purpose “seems to have veered of course over the last few years.”
Wheeler further said he had a “full agenda” planned if Donald Trump had won re-election, including developing a cost-benefit rule and a science transparency rule for each of the EPA’s statutes.
He also said he remains hopeful that a future administration will pick up on that unfinished business, “because I just think the transparency side is very important.”
Environmentalists argued that such changes could have made it harder to justify some pollution cuts under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and other statutes by focusing cost-benefit reviews on rules’ costs, sidelining their benefits.
“For the life of me I can’t figure out why people would oppose those,” Wheeler said. “Because all it is is about making things more transparent.”
In his view, much of the pushback was political. Some EPA career staffers also resisted the effort “because they didn’t want to have to explain” their regulatory actions, Wheeler said. Had the idea come out under a Democratic president, environmentalists likely would have applauded it, he argued.
But Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, denied that resistance to the cost-benefit rule was politically motivated.
“Cost-benefit analysis should never be used to decide whether or not to regulate. It only should be used to consider different options,” Rosenberg said. “No sensible organization supported that reform.”
Asked about the achievements he’s proudest of, Wheeler said the EPA “definitively proved, for the first time, that you can streamline regulations and still improve the environment at the same time.”
He also said he’s proud to have made “lasting improvements” to the EPA’s structure, including creating a new management system to improve the office’s workflow and reorganizing the agency’s 10 regions to make them work more efficiently with headquarters.