The President’s Coal Warrior
If you could design the ideal character to assure the continuing domination of Big Coal and Big Oil in America and to reaffirm their faith in their God-given right to cook the climate in pursuit of profit, that character would look a lot like acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. And the odd thing is, if you met “Andy,” as his many friends call him, at one of his popular Halloween parties at his brick house in suburban Alexandria, Virginia, you would probably think he was a great guy. He’s 53, gray hair, glasses, a stout Midwesterner with a warm and friendly manner. He is unfailingly civil to everyone, no matter if you are right, left, enviro or Oklahoma wildcatter. He is likely to ply you with homemade Cincinnati chili or tell you about his hike up Mount Kilimanjaro or remind you that when he worked in the U.S. Senate some people called him “the Werewolf.” You might notice he’s wearing socks with little penguins on them, as he often does. And if you make a joke that connects the penguins on his socks with the disappearing ice in Antarctica due to the fossil fuels burned by his pals in the oil and coal industry, he will probably just laugh. “Andy’s a hard guy not to love,” says Chris Hessler, a lobbyist and former Senate staffer who has known Wheeler for more than a decade.
But make no mistake, Wheeler is one of the most skilled regulatory hitmen the fossil-fuel industry has ever deployed. Compared to former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, his clownishly corrupt and incompetent predecessor, Wheeler is a no-nonsense professional, a man with vast experience in the dark corners of the Senate who can crawl through the most fetid lobbyist dungeons and emerge with the name of the right congressional staffer to call to tweak a bill that’s heading for the floor. Pruitt, on the other hand, who had come to Washington from the wilds of Oklahoma, was almost comically ineffective at rolling back the laws he made such a show of attacking as he embroiled himself in no fewer than 13 scandals during his 18-month tenure.
Wheeler won’t make the same mistakes. “Under Trump, the EPA’s mission is to deliver for the Republican Party’s fossil-fuel overlords,” Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse tells me in an e-mail. “Under Wheeler, I don’t think that will change.” What will change is his mission plan. “Wheeler is the embodiment of the anti-regulatory ‘deep state’ in Washington,” says Ken Cook, president of the nonprofit advocacy organization Environmental Working Group. “His goal is not just to roll back the environmental progress made under President Obama, but to weaken and deconstruct the entire regulatory system at the EPA. He’s playing the long game. And that’s exactly what makes him so dangerous.”
WHEELER GREW UP in Fairfield, Ohio, just outside Cincinnati. His father, a dentist, died when Andrew was 21 months old, and he and his two sisters were raised mostly by their mother, an elementary-school teacher. He had asthma as a kid, and still uses an inhaler to this day. He became an Eagle Scout and, ironically, given his future in the war against nature, worked several summers as the nature-conservation director at a nearby Boy Scout camp (“The most fun I’ve had at a job,” he recalled). During the summer, he visited his grandmother in Beckley, West Virginia. “My grandfather was a coal miner during the Depression,” Wheeler said in his first official remarks to EPA staffers. “My grandmother raised her children in the coal camps in West Virginia. In fact, I still have some of the company scrip that she used to buy food in the company store.” (Wheeler and the EPA did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
Wheeler did his time in academia: undergrad at Case Western Reserve University, a law degree from Washington University in St. Louis, and an MBA from Virginia’s George Mason University. In the early 1990s, he went to work for the EPA in Washington, in a division that promoted the public release of information about toxic chemicals. In 1995, Wheeler jumped into politics, as a staffer for both Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich and Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who has long been the most outspoken and notorious climate-change denier in American politics. In 2003, after Inhofe became chair of the powerful Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, he worked hard to derail any legislation designed to curb carbon pollution, arguing that “manmade global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” At the time Inhofe made this statement, Wheeler was his committee’s chief counsel.
But even Wheeler’s opponents appreciated his political skills. “He could be sharp-elbowed,” says Chris Miller, the former senior policy adviser for Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords. “But he was also straightforward. He could broker deals because you always knew where you stood with him. He was always honest about what he could do and what he couldn’t. And he never made it personal. No matter how tough the fight, he was always happy to have drinks with you afterward.”
Wheeler left the Senate in 2009 and joined Faegre Baker Daniels, a prominent law firm that was recently accused of helping conceal sexual-abuse allegations against USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. For a princely sum, Wheeler helped the firm’s many clients navigate the regulatory thickets in D.C. (a financial-disclosure form filed in 2017 shows Wheeler claimed a salary and bonus of $741,074). His most prominent client was Robert Murray, the Ohio coal operator whom Last Week Tonight host John Oliver called “geriatric Dr. Evil.” Murray is the last of the Old World coal barons, a man who believes that coal is the fuel of prosperity and salvation and that, as he put it recently, “people are going to die in the dark” if coal-power generation declines too far.
Over an eight-year period, Murray paid $2.7 million in lobbying fees to Wheeler’s firm. Wheeler’s lobbying disclosure reports have been vague, saying only that he worked with Murray on “general energy and environment issues.” In an interview with The New York Times, Wheeler acknowledged working with Murray to fight Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a landmark regulation on coal-plant emissions to be implemented and overseen by the EPA. But Wheeler said that he never lobbied Pruitt’s EPA, presumably because he suspected he might be tapped for a position in the Trump administration and didn’t want to run afoul of rules that prohibit former lobbyists from working for an agency they had recently lobbied. “I knew it was a possibility, so after the election I stopped lobbying any new EPA issues,” Wheeler told the Times.
In the early days of Trump’s campaign, Wheeler thought Trump was a joke. In an appraisal on Facebook, Wheeler noted that Trump “has demonstrated through debates and interviews that he doesn’t understand how government works,” that “as a businessman, he hasn’t been very successful. He’s a successful PR person, but not a businessperson.” And most important, “[Trump] is a bully. This alone should disqualify him from the White House.”
Wheeler changed his tune a few months later when he heard Trump speak at a closed-door fundraising dinner in Wheeling, West Virginia, that was hosted by none other than Robert Murray. “It was about a 40-minute energy speech that [Trump] gave,” Wheeler told The Washington Post, offering a master class in political ass-kissing. “He didn’t use notes. He didn’t use a teleprompter. I really thought it was the most comprehensive energy speech by a presidential candidate I had ever heard.”
When Trump won, Murray was a made man. Shortly after Trump took office, Murray, who contributed $300,000 to Trump’s inauguration fund, met with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and handed him an “Action Plan . . . to assist in the survival of our country’s coal industry.” Among the 16 items on the list: Eliminate the Clean Power Plan, pull out of the Paris Agreement, and overturn regulations on mercury and other air toxins from coal plants — all of which the Trump administration is doing (or trying to).
At the meeting with Murray was his pal Wheeler. And in a move that surprised no one, Wheeler was nominated by the White House in October 2017 to be second-in-command at the EPA, where he was seen as a sober counterweight to Pruitt. In July, when Pruitt finally resigned, Wheeler stepped in.
AS AN ARCHITECT of environmental rollbacks, Pruitt was inept. When he tried to halt rules restricting methane release, it was stayed by the D.C. circuit court. When he tried to delay the Chemical Disaster Rule, the D.C. circuit called the agency’s argument a “mockery” of the Clean Air Act and demanded the rule be put into effect without delay. When the EPA tried to stall an ozone-air-pollution standard, environmental groups sued, forcing the EPA to proceed with the new standards.
Wheeler is much shrewder. Shortly after moving into the EPA administrator’s wood-paneled office, he reversed Pruitt’s decision to grant a loophole for so-called glider trucks, which allowed older, heavy-polluter engines to be installed in new trucks. He has also distanced himself from one of the Trump administration’s biggest environmental debacles: the misguided attempt to rewrite fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. The proposal is based on questionable legal arguments that even die-hard anti-regulatory zealots think won’t stand a chance in court. “This is a nutso administration — Wheeler is not going to blow himself up on this rule,” says one lobbyist familiar with the negotiations. “He has other stuff to do.”
More important, Wheeler understands that it’s smarter to pursue a backdoor assault on rules in order to get what the industry wants, which is, to put it bluntly, to offload the costs and risks of pollution from industry to the public. But since the role of the EPA is to protect public health — and people like unpolluted water and clean air — the trick, if you are Wheeler, is to undermine the process of crafting the regulations in the first place.
To do that, Wheeler first needs to undermine science. As the old saying goes, what you don’t know can’t hurt you. Consider particulate matter, a deadly form of air pollution that can affect your brain, heart and lungs. A 2013 study found that tighter regulation of this form of microscopic air pollution could help prevent 200,000 early deaths each year in the U.S.
So what happens shortly after Wheeler arrives? The EPA announces it is eliminating the 20-person scientific-review panel for particulate matter.
A similar impulse is behind an EPA initiative called “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.” In it, the EPA claims to want to use reproducible science and so will only consider studies in which all the data is publicly available. But it’s Orwellian bullshit. Wheeler surely knows that many public-health studies depend on nonpublic data (for privacy reasons). In fact, the initiative appears to target a landmark 1993 public-health study known as the Harvard Six Cities study — it found that Americans who live in more polluted cities die faster, and became the foundation for more stringent air-pollution regulations in recent years.
Wheeler is also gutting the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, the agency’s main scientific oversight committee. New board members won’t be selected until early next year, but among the finalists are sketchy characters like James Enstrom, a researcher who took funds from Big Tobacco and whose work downplays the dangers of air pollution. Another is John Christy, a professor at the University of Alabama who is well-known for his view that the risks of climate change are overblown. A third candidate argues that more carbon dioxide is good for the planet. And of course there are a number of hacks from Big Oil companies. “The purpose of undermining scientific advisory committees is to stop EPA progress on clean water, clean air and climate change,” says David Michaels, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University. “By removing independent scientists, they can be sure there is no dissent.”
Wheeler’s second method of undermining the regulatory powers of the EPA is through changing the way the costs and benefits of environmental regulations are assessed. You can see echoes of this in the latest rhetoric of climate deniers like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who argue that, yes, climate change is real, and humans might be responsible, but it’s too expensive to do anything about it. This is an obvious lie — look at California, where the economy is booming but carbon pollution is in sharp decline. In fact, the economic and human impacts of a rapidly changing climate dwarf any costs associated with cutting carbon pollution. If cost were the real criteria for action, fossil fuels would have been outlawed a decade ago. But that’s not what this is about. It’s about protecting the empires of Big Coal and Big Oil.
Congress directs that all costs and benefits of regulation must be considered in a reasonable assessment of EPA rules. But the devil is in the details. The best example of this is Wheeler’s attempt to change the Mercury and Air Toxins Standards. The rule regulates the emission of highly toxic metals like mercury and arsenic, as well as cancer-causing chemicals like cadmium and selenium, from industrial sources (mostly coal-burning power plants). Big Coal fought a pitched battle for more than a decade to stop this rule, but it lost in 2014, and for good reason: Mercury and the other heavy metals the rule regulates are among the most toxic substances on Earth, and disproportionately impact what are often poor communities living near power plants. In recent years, power companies have spent $18 billion to install mercury scrubbers, and mercury emissions have fallen by 70 percent. It is one of the most dramatic environmental success stories of the past decade.
And yet Wheeler wants to weaken the air-toxins rule. From a public-policy perspective, it’s like arguing child-abuse laws should be rolled back. Not even the electric power industry wants the rule softened. In a highly unusual move, the Edison Electric Institute, a powerful industry trade group, and six other utilities signed an open letter urging the agency not to weaken the rule. The rollback “is a mean-spirited and dumb move,” says Ann Weeks, legal director at the Clean Air Task Force. “They will lose in court and in public opinion.”
So if Wheeler is such a wily operator, why is he pushing it? The simplest explanation is that it was on Murray’s list. The slightly less simple explanation is that Bill Wehrum, the coal- and oil-industry lawyer who fought the mercury rule for years in court (and sued the EPA 31 times), now heads the EPA division in charge of it. The most plausible explanation is that Wheeler wants to use the mercury fight to set a precedent that could fundamentally change how environmental rules are calculated.
The EPA’s argument to change the rule is based on the idea that ancillary benefits from reducing mercury emissions should not be included, even if they are real. Under Obama, the EPA estimated that it would cost utilities $9.6 billion a year to comply with the new standards, while limiting mercury could translate to $6 million in public-health benefits. But when you install a mercury scrubber on a coal plant, you reduce a lot of other nasty stuff too, and the EPA estimated that the soot and nitrogen-oxide reductions that would accompany cuts to mercury would save between $37 billion and $90 billion in annual health costs and lost workdays by preventing as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks. Thus the cost-benefit analysis justified the regulation. And this was hardly regulatory “overreach” by the Obama administration: The EPA has for decades been including co-benefits in cost-benefit analyses for new regulations.
But Wheeler believes this is wrong. “I just think it’s a little fuzzy math when you say, ‘Reduce mercury and we have all these other benefits over here,’ as the shiny object,” he told The Washington Post. But the benefits aren’t “over here” — they’re part and parcel to the process of limiting mercury. It’s like running five miles a day — you might do it to lose weight, but you get other rewards too, from better muscle tone to a stronger heart.
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This change in analysis is at the center of other proposed rule changes too, including the replacement of the Clean Power Plan. Setting limits on carbon pollution is required by law, but such limits have long been anathema to Big Coal and Big Oil. So instead of trying to kill the Clean Power Plan, which would launch a legal battle they would surely lose, Wheeler and his EPA pals have proposed a replacement of the plan, dubbing it the Affordable Clean Energy Rule. The upshot is that instead of the federal government setting emissions targets for states, states can set them for themselves (that’s good for big coal-burning states like Ohio). The goal of the Clean Power Plan was to cut carbon pollution from the power sector to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The new plan, announced by Wheeler in August, would only reduce emissions between 0.7 and 1.5 percent in the same time frame.
Just like with the mercury rule, the EPA is justifying the much weaker regulation by disregarding the co-benefits of cutting carbon pollution, such as reducing conventional air pollutants, which have enormous public-health impacts. The EPA’s own calculations show its power plan would lead to upward of 1,400 additional premature deaths and 48,000 new cases of exacerbated asthma each year. But those costs, not to mention those lives, aren’t factored into the new rules.
“If the EPA is able to get away with recalculating cost-benefit analysis, it will be much harder to undo than if they just changed the criteria for, say, ozone levels from a 70 to a 72,” says Melinda Pierce, legislative director at the Sierra Club. “It will do serious damage to the agency’s ability to protect public health, and after Wheeler is gone, it will take years to rebuild that capacity.”
And that’s exactly Wheeler’s game plan. The ultimate goal here is what futurist Alex Steffen calls “predatory delay.” Wheeler knows every rule he can blunt, every bit of science he can undermine, keeps guys like Robert Murray in business for a few more years before the old coal plants are shut down and replaced by wind or solar, which, in most parts of the country, are already cheaper than coal. What Big Coal and Big Oil want from Wheeler is not victory, but time. That, in the end, is what makes Wheeler so dangerous. Because given how fast our climate is changing, and how urgent it is to leave fossil fuels in the tar pit of history, that’s exactly what we don’t have.