News & Politics

Who Is Andrew Wheeler? Scott Pruitt's Replacement at the EPA Is Even Scarier

Washington insiders describe Wheeler as poised to take the reins of the EPA and to pursue Trump's agenda

Following the resignation of Scott Pruitt, the embattled former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), President Donald Trump announced that the federal agency would be run for the intervening period by Andrew Wheeler – a former coal lobbyist who shares a similar enthusiasm for his administration's deregulatory agenda.

On Thursday afternoon, Trump tweeted that he had accepted Pruitt's resignation.

"Within the Agency Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this," the president wrote.

Trump then announced that Wheeler, who served as Pruitt's No. 2 at the agency, would serve as acting administrator of the EPA until a new Cabinet member is confirmed by the Senate.

"I have no doubt that Andy will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda. We have made tremendous progress and the future of the EPA is very bright!" he continued on Twitter.

That process could take several months – and potentially drag out past this November's midterm elections.

"They're not going to get anyone else through the Senate until after this election cycle," Christine Todd Whitman, who headed the EPA under former President George W. Bush, told the New York Times back in April. "The acting administrator doesn't have the same authority as the administrator, but they can do an awful lot."

Trump could nominate Wheeler to permanently succeed Pruitt, and the interim leader is considered a likely successor by the Washington Post. But, according to the New York Times, "several other names have also been floated as possible successors to Pruitt, including Donald Van der Vaart, a former senior environmental official in North Carolina, who Pruitt selected to serve on an EPA scientific advisory board."

Wheeler, for his part, insisted that he is not interested in running the EPA in an interview with the Washington Examiner in June.

"I could have put my hat in the ring for the administrator. I wasn't interested in that," he said last month. "I am still not interested in that."

Wheeler has worked in Washington for more than 20 years. He is a former chief of staff to Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, the Republican who has become known as one of Capitol Hill's most prominent climate change deniers. According to the New York Times, one group of former Inhofe aides who now work in energy and environment policy positions across the Trump administration and in top DC lobbying firms are loosely referred to as the "Inhofe mafia."

Inhofe, who previously served as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has publicly delegitimized the EPA on more than one occasion."We are going to take all this stuff that comes out of the EPA that is brainwashing our kids, that is propaganda, things that aren't true, allegations," the senator said on CNN's "New Day" last year.

Prior to being confirmed by the Senate as deputy EPA administrator, Wheeler previously worked in the agency's office of pollution prevention during the administration of the first President George Bush. More recently, Wheeler lobbied for the coal company Murray Energy, the largest coal mining company in the nation, whose chief executive Robert E. Murray donated $300,000 to Trump's presidential inauguration.

And environmentalists have seized on Wheeler's record as a former energy lobbyist and coal lover to herald the acting administrator as the environment's biggest enemy.

"Like Pruitt, this veteran coal lobby lobbyist has shown only disdain for the E.P.A.'s vital mission to protect Americans' health and our environment," Ana Unruh Cohen, managing director for government affairs at the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, told the New York Times.

Washington insiders describe Wheeler as poised to take the reins of the EPA and to pursue Trump's agenda, perhaps even more effectively than Pruitt.

"Andrew is one of the most well-known, well-respected policy professionals in Washington on energy and environment," Matthew Dempsey, a former colleague of Wheeler's in Inhofe's office, who currently works for a lobbying firm representing the oil and gas industry, told the Times. "he knows everybody."

"He will be similar to Pruitt in terms of the agenda. He understands the Trump administration, and will carry out the agenda," Dempsey continued. "But he's been around Washington a long time. He knows how DC works, and he does things by the book."

Inhofe welcomed Wheeler's arrival at the EPA with open arms earlier this year.

"Andy Wheeler is the most competent and qualified person for the job he's been asked to fulfill," the senator said. "Anyone who sat through his confirmation hearing would tell you he did a masterful job."

However, another prominent senator, Bernie Sanders (I-VT), expressed skepticism that Wheeler would be as bad as Pruitt for the environment.

"We need an EPA administrator – and I know this is a radical idea – that actually believes in environmental protection rather than just the profits of the oil, gas or coal industry" Sanders said on Thursday.

According to the New York Times, "one potential obstacle to [Wheeler] being nominated by the president to fill the job permanently is his record of opposing Mr. Trump during the presidential campaign." The Times reported that Wheeler spoke out against Trump in a since-deleted Facebook post on Feb. 29, 2016.

"If you are considering voting for Donald Trump please think about the following: 1) no one really knows what his political beliefs are, he has donated to both parties over the years and to people with completely different views. 2) he has demonstrated through the debates and interviews that he doesn’t understand how government works," Wheeler wrote, per the Times.

The newspaper added that Wheeler's post also suggested that, as a businessman, Trump "really hasn't been that successful."

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Follow Shira Tarlo on Twitter at @shiratarlo.