Andrew Wheeler has questioned the need to regulate coal ash from power plants and cast doubt on efforts to address climate change. Now the former coal lobbyist and Senate staffer is the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Over the years, Wheeler has weighed in on numerous issues that he will now be responsible for addressing when he becomes acting head of the EPA. The last day for Wheeler’s predecessor, Scott Pruitt, was July 6.
Mining Wheeler’s resume, his clients, and his public statements over the past decade offers hints as to where he stands on some of today’s most important environmental issues—as a deep skeptic of regulation.
Like other conservatives on environmental policy, “he’s much more willing to say, ‘Let the free market handle things,’” Ken Kopocis, a former Democratic aide on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where Wheeler was the Republican staff director, told Bloomberg Environment.
“Unlike Mr. Pruitt, Andrew has a long Washington resume,” Kopocis said. “He understands much more than Pruitt did about how Washington works. Which means to me he won’t be so clumsy or haphazard.”
Few decisions Wheeler will face will be more scrutinized than those related to climate change.
During his confirmation hearings last year to become the EPA’s deputy administrator, Wheeler told the Senate committee he used to work for that he believes “man has an impact on the climate, but what is not completely understood is what the impact is.”
Wheeler also lobbied on behalf of several fossil fuel companies, including Murray Energy Corp., one of the largest coal mining companies in the U.S. whose CEO, Robert Murray, is a prominent denier of climate science.
When he was the Republican staff director at Environment and Public Works, Wheeler was adept at advocating for the views of this then-boss, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Wheeler’s former colleague Matt Dempsey said.
“And I think that translates to Trump, in the sense that he’s now the boss,” Dempsey, the committee’s communications director under Inhofe, told Bloomberg Environment.
The EPA didn’t respond to a request to interview Wheeler.
Kopocis recalled that Wheeler expressed skepticism about solar energy’s reliability when they worked together on Capitol Hill.
“He once said, ‘Well, you can’t always rely on the sun,’” Kopocis said. “Which I found kind of interesting, because it does come up every day.”
While lobbying for Murray, Wheeler weighed in on one of the primary environmental issues for its industry: the storage and removal of coal ash from power plants.
Speaking at a 2013 American Bar Association conference, he criticized the Obama administration’s push to regulate coal ash waste, saying he was “not positive it should have been a high environmental priority.”
Earlier this year, Wheeler recused himself from matters involving Murray Energy in a letter, which was released to Bloomberg Environment through a Freedom of Information Act request. It’s unclear if his recusals will affect his involvement with coal ash disposal regulations.
Several environmentalists, however, expect Wheeler to continue Pruitt’s efforts to follow through on the company’s desire to let states and coal-powered electric utilities decide whether substances leaking from coal ash ponds and landfills are unsafe for the public and the environment.
“We have every reason to expect that the lobbyists and lawyers for the coal ash utilities will continue to direct the policies of the agency,” Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, told Bloomberg Environment.
Robert Murray has had no contact with Wheeler since he became deputy EPA administrator, according to a statement from the company.
In addition to his time lobbying on behalf of Murray Energy with the firm Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting, Wheeler’s clients also included the natural gas firms Xcel Energy and Bear Head LNG, as well as the uranium mining company Energy Fuels Resources and the nuclear power industry group the Nuclear Energy Institute, according to federal lobbying disclosure data.
Wheeler also lobbied on behalf of a now-defunct group called the Domestic Fuel Solutions Group. Newsletters from the group archived on the Internet indicate it was opposed to the EPA’s renewable fuel requirements that force refiners blend corn-based ethanol into their products. The group’s former headquarters is listed at the same Irving, Texas, location as the home of Celanese Americas, a chemical manufacturer for which Wheeler also lobbied.
Some of Pruitt’s strongest criticism from Republicans came from lawmakers who represent Midwestern corn-producing states who felt the ousted EPA chief was trying to undermine the ethanol mandate. However, Wheeler didn’t indicate any hostility to ethanol in his confirmation hearings.
“The [Renewable Fuels Standard] is the law of the land and I fully support the program,” he said. “I support both the law and the intent.”
Another issue Wheeler will face as the head of the EPA is whether to allow California to set its own air pollution standards for cars and trucks.
The Golden State currently has this power, but the Trump administration has discussed nullifying it in an effort to loosen federal standards, which automakers have called for.
At the height of the financial crisis in 2008, when Wheeler was the Republican staff director of Environment and Public Works, he told Bloomberg Environment this authority might not make sense any more. Wheeler said California’s tight emissions standards could make life harder for U.S. automakers, which were then teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
Wheeler also has a history in the debate over whether to ban a particular type of refrigerant chemical that is also a potent greenhouse gas. So far, the Trump administration has declined to back an international pact, known as the Kigali Agreement, to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, despite the agreement’s strong backing from the chemical industry.
This issue is one that will be familiar for Wheeler. In 2011 he lobbied on behalf of ICOR International, a subsidiary of The Chemours Co. that produces replacement products for HFC-based refrigerants.
During his confirmation hearings, Wheeler showed no indication his views differ at all from his predecessor’s on the issue of the EPA’s use of science.
Earlier this year, the agency proposed a rule that would prohibit it from relying on non-public data when crafting new regulations, which many environmentalists fear will halt EPA action on new pollution threats.
Wheeler told the Senate that all of the data the EPA uses “should be out in the public for everybody to see.”
—With assistance from Sylvia Carignan and Sam McQuillan.