Right thrilled as Trump taps former coal lobbyist for EPA top post

Source: Kevin Bogardus, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, October 6, 2017

All good things come to those who wait. Or at least a nomination.

Yesterday, the White House sent to the Senate the nomination of Andrew Wheeler to be deputy administrator for U.S. EPA. The agency has been waiting for nearly nine months under the Trump administration for its No. 2 to be announced.

“We wish it hadn’t taken so damn long,” Myron Ebell, who led Trump’s transition team at EPA, told E&E News about Wheeler’s nomination.

Wheeler, a former top aide to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and now energy lobbyist, has been the long-rumored pick to fill the agency’s deputy spot behind Administrator Scott Pruitt.

In March, reports emerged he was in line for the job. By June, however, Jeff Holmstead was under consideration, which sparked a backlash by Trump’s conservative supporters. By July, Wheeler was again considered the likely nominee.

In a statement yesterday, Pruitt praised his incoming deputy. “Andrew will bring extraordinary credentials to EPA that will greatly assist the Agency as we work to implement our agenda,” Pruitt said.

He said Wheeler spent his career “working to improve environmental outcomes for Americans across the country and understands the importance of providing regularity certainty for our country.”

Before Wheeler, Trump had announced his picks to lead several offices at the agency, including air, chemicals, enforcement and water, as well as a general counsel nominee. Pruitt remains the only Senate-confirmed official in place at EPA.

Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, cited Wheeler’s long record in environmental law and policy on why he would be a good fit for EPA leadership.

Wheeler spent six years as the Republicans’ chief counsel and staff director on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which Inhofe chaired. The nominee also served at the agency during the early 1990s.

“He has the experience at both EPA and EPW that will serve him well in the job,” Ebell said. “We know he’s committed to fundamental reform of the way the agency is managed and organized. He has the necessary experience to accomplish that.”

Prior to working for the full EPW panel, Wheeler was a staff director for the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate Change and Nuclear Safety. He also has been chief counsel for Inhofe.

Wheeler started his career at EPA working on toxic chemical and pollution prevention issues, where he earned the agency’s Bronze Medal several times for his service.

Wheeler, a Case Western Reserve University graduate, has his law degree from Washington University School of Law and a Master of Business Administration from George Mason University.

Coal’s man in Washington

While Wheeler’s administration and congressional experience will come in handy as EPA’s deputy chief, his lobbying record will likely come under the most scrutiny during his Senate confirmation.

He left the EPW panel in 2009 and joined what is now known as Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting. Records show he has represented more than a dozen clients at the firm, including big names like the Nuclear Energy Institute and Xcel Energy Inc.

Wheeler has also been a longtime lobbyist for Murray Energy Corp., run by vocal Trump supporter Bob Murray. He first registered to lobby for the coal giant in 2009.

Murray is an ardent critic of EPA and especially of the Obama administration. His company has sued the agency several times, including one suit to block the Clean Power Plan, which Pruitt is working to reverse.

Last year, the coal CEO pulled no punches when assessing Obama’s legacy. In an emailed response to E&E News, Murray gave the prior administration “a resounding F,” adding, “President Obama has been the greatest destroyer that America has ever seen” (Greenwire, Sept. 15, 2016).

Murray Energy has been a campaign donor to political groups associated with Trump, as well as Pruitt when the EPA chief was Oklahoma attorney general.

Wheeler’s eight years of lobbying for Murray will be a point of contention for environmental groups and Democrats during his confirmation process.

The Environmental Defense Fund has already included him on “a growing list of polluter lobbyists” looking to join EPA.

Melinda Pierce, legislative director for the Sierra Club, said that Wheeler’s nomination was “absolutely horrifying.”

Wheeler has parted ways with Murray. He is no longer acting as a lobbyist for his remaining clients, including the coal company, according to amended records released this August.

Managing the agency

If the Senate confirms him as deputy EPA administrator, Wheeler may be saddled with some of the more unpopular tasks at the agency.

Mike Flynn, a career official who is currently EPA’s acting No. 2, has often been the deliverer of bad news to employees. For example, Flynn’s memo this past April announced this summer’s round of buyouts, which led to hundreds leaving the agency as part of the Trump administration’s governmentwide reorganization effort (Greenwire, April 19).

“In any downsizing of EPA, the Deputy Administrator would play an essential role in managing that across the agency, both framing and making critical choices about how to carry that out. But ultimately, final responsibility and accountability always rests with the Administrator,” Stan Meiburg, who served as acting deputy administrator from 2014 to 2017, said in an email to E&E News.

Wheeler would also have to mesh with Henry Darwin, who has been brought on earlier this year as EPA’s deputy assistant administrator. Essentially the agency’s No. 3 in charge, Darwin has been called EPA’s chief operating officer — a moniker typically applied to the deputy chief.

Meiburg said, “Some Administrators have become more engaged in management issues than others. The relationship between the Deputy Administrator and the Chief of Operations position created by this administration will have to be worked out.”

Meiburg also said the deputy chief needs to “have a solid network of trust and communication with both the political appointees and the senior career officials in the agency.”

Ebell said Wheeler will be ready to work with the career staff at EPA in order to move forward on Trump’s agenda. “Andrew knows that you have to engage and work with the career civil servants to get anything done,” Ebell said.

Wheeler would be effective at EPA, according to a former Capitol Hill Republican aide who worked with him. The former aide called Wheeler “a very balanced guy. Not a knee-jerk guy. He wants to hear all the facts.”

“He can keep the trains running on time, just make sure that the business of the agency is running smoothly,” said the ex-colleague.