Scott Pruitt finally stepped down from his controversial perch atop the EPA on Thursday. Roughly 24 hours after attending a Fourth of July picnic on the White House lawn and only a few hours after the New York Times reported that he fired an aide for questioning the legality of deleting meeting records, President Trump tweeted that he had accepted the resignation of his scandal-ridden EPA chief. It was long overdue, as Pruitt had amassed a portfolio of corruption so vast that, as Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-MA) said Thursday, “he made swamp creatures blush.”
But if you dig deep enough under the sensational headlines, you’ll find that Pruitt pushed one of the most sinister agendas in the EPA’s history. Though often sloppily executed, his policy initiatives actively undermined the agency’s mission. An unabashed climate denier, Pruitt did everything he could to cripple Obama’s Clean Power Plan, slashing regulations wherever he could. While campaigning, Trump promised to “get rid” of the EPA to the greatest extent possible, and by God was Pruitt, whose callous indifference toward the environment was unsurpassed, the man to do it.
Pruitt’s replacement, Andrew Wheeler, may be even more harmful to the air and water this country depends on.
Wheeler has spent close to 30 years in Washington, D.C., a stretch that includes working both for politicians on Capitol Hill and as a lobbyist for the fossil-fuel industry. While Pruitt recklessly flouted ethical standards and brought an undue amount of attention to himself, Wheeler, as the Times points out, is methodical and exacting, preferring to wield influence from behind the scenes. He’s also every bit as intent on axing Obama-era policy and deregulating the energy industry. His track record – which naturally includes plenty of climate science skepticism – speaks for itself.
After working for the EPA under George H.W. Bush, Wheeler was a longtime staffer for Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), who in 2014 became the most notorious climate denier in Congress after brandishing a snowball on the Senate floor as a way to prove that while the president was worried about global warming, it was, in fact, “very, very cold out.” Such a disaster was Pruitt’s tenure at the EPA that even Inhofe, his fellow Okie, grew critical of how he abused his power. He loved his policy agenda, though, and is excited for Wheeler to see it to fruition without any expenditure-related distractions. “Andrew worked for me for 14 years, has an impeccable reputation and has the experience to be a strong leader at the EPA,” Inhofe said in a statement. “I have no doubt and complete confidence he will continue the important deregulatory work that Scott Pruitt started while being a good steward of the environment.”
As a lobbyist, Wheeler has represented companies including but not limited to Energy Fuel Resources (which mines uranium and has pushed to slash natural national monuments), Darling Ingredients (which has paid the EPA over $1 million in penalties) and, most notably, Murray Energy (a coal company that has sued the EPA several times). Whenever President Trump talks about everything his administration is doing to bolster the “beautiful” coal industry, he’s largely following a set of guidelines laid about by Murray Energy CEO and Trump donor Robert Murray, who provided an “action plan” that included cutting regulations on everything from greenhouse gases to mine safety standards. In March 2017, Wheeler set up a meeting between Murray – who has even denied carbon monoxide is a pollutant – and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Though Wheeler will only head the agency on an interim basis, it could be months before Trump selects a permanent replacement, who will need to be confirmed by the Senate. Trump could also simply choose to retain Wheeler, although Wheeler said in June that he’s not interested in the job. “I could have put my hat in the ring for the administrator. I wasn’t interested in that. I am still not interested in that,” he told the Washington Examiner.
If Wheeler stays true to his word, another name that has been floated as a possible replacement is Donald Van der Vaart, a member of Pruitt’s scientific advisory board who in the past has sued the government over the Clean Power Plan and a 2015 expansion of the Clean Water Act. While serving on North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, he supported restricting solar power and expanding nuclear energy.
Regardless of who ultimately replaces Pruitt, it’s unlikely they’re going to have ties to the Sierra Club. This is the Trump administration, after all.