New EPA Chief Promises to Defend Employees' Work While Continuing Regulatory Rollbacks

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told employees Wednesday he valued their expertise. Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told employees Wednesday he valued their expertise. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The new head of the Environmental Protection Agency made a promise in his first address to its workforce: I trust you, and I will listen to you.

Those words may be welcomed by employees who spent much of former Administrator Scott Pruitt’s tenure voicing frustration that they had been sidelined and their work marginalized. Pruitt announced his resignation last week amid a mounting series of alleged ethical violations and subsequent investigations, leading his deputy, Andrew Wheeler, to take over in an acting capacity.

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Wheeler stressed in his speech that he began his professional career as a civil servant special assistant in EPA’s toxics division. The office underwent significant change in his four-year tenure, changing names several times. He joked that he settled for a job on Capitol Hill in order to gain more stability. That experience, he said, gave him unique insight into what EPA employees are going through today.

“I do understand firsthand what goes on with a change in management and a change in organization, and we are going through that now,” Wheeler said. He added he sympathizes with the pressures they “deal with on a daily basis as employees of the agency.”

During his time as a congressional aide and in the private sector, Wheeler said, he was frequently asked what it was like to be a Republican at EPA. He would respond that the agency employs “some of the most dedicated of all the federal career employees in the federal government.”

As its acting administrator, Wheeler said he plans to take advantage of that dedication and knowledge.

“When it comes to leadership you can’t lead unless you listen,” Wheeler said. “You will find me and my team ready to listen.”

He added he would enter the job trusting that all employees are doing the best work that they can do.

“My instinct is to defend your work and I will seek the facts from you before drawing conclusions,” Wheeler said.

The acting administrator has faced criticism from environmentalists for his role in lobbying on behalf of a coal company, but Wheeler brushed those attacks aside, saying he represented many different companies and industries and he was proud of what he accomplished on behalf of miners. 

Pruitt often faced criticism for challenging the scientific conclusions of career employees. He dismissed members of the EPA's science advisory board and openly questioned the human role in climate change. He also successfully won authority to offer separation incentives to employees and sought to close regional laboratories. He proposed slashing EPA spending by 34 percent last year and cutting 25 percent of its workforce in the department's latest budget proposal. While those figures were never agreed to in Congress, the agency shed about 5 percent of its employees in Trump’s first year in office.

Despite the kind words, Wheeler said he would largely follow in the footsteps of his predecessor. Like Pruitt, he said he would rein in EPA so it focused only on its “core functions.” He vowed better cooperation with the private sector and to continue rolling back “regulatory overreach.” Part of that goal, he said, would be to provide “clarity and transparency” to industry to help it create jobs. He said when President Trump notified him that he would be taking over at EPA, Trump said to focus on three things: clean water, clean air and deregulation.

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