On Thursday, Donald Trump tweeted that the scandal-ridden director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, had finally resigned. Deputy director Andrew Wheeler will take his place.
I have accepted the resignation of Scott Pruitt as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Within the Agency Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this. The Senate confirmed Deputy at EPA, Andrew Wheeler, will...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 5, 2018
...on Monday assume duties as the acting Administrator of the EPA. 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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 5, 2018
Wheeler was only marginally approved as EPA deputy in April. He’s remained largely out of the public eye since his tenure began. But some worry that his promotion may accelerate the Trump administration’s determined dismantling of the EPA.
With a past life as an energy industry lobbyist, Wheeler is not an environmentalist, to say the least. Wheeler served as the chair of the Washington Coal Alliance, and has suggested overturning the laws that limit greenhouse gas emissions. He also once commented that he disagreed with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s finding that carbon dioxide emissions could negatively impact human health, and accused the group of scientists of functioning more like a political body.
“Wheeler is much smarter and will try to keep his efforts under the radar in implementing Trump’s destructive agenda,” Jeremy Symons, vice president for political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund told Politico in May of this year. “That should scare anyone who breathes.”
Wheeler has spent more than two decades in Washington. His first job was working as a top aide for Oklahoma senator James Inhofe—the man who so vehemently denies that climate change is real, he once threw a snowball (video) in the middle of Congress.
Before taking the job at the EPA, Wheeler worked as an energy lobbyist on Capitol Hill. One of his biggest clients was Murray Energy, which is one of the largest coal companies in the country. Murray’s CEO Robert Murray has supported Trump for years, and long worked to do away with health and safety regulations like the Clean Power Plan. Wheeler was responsible for setting up meetings between Murray and Energy Secretary Rick Perry according to the Washington Post.
“Andrew is one of the most well-known, well-respected policy professionals in Washington on energy and environment—he knows everybody,” Matthew Dempsey, a lobbyist who knows Wheeler from Inhofe’s office, told the New York Times (paywall). It’s this notoriety and insider savvy that could make Wheeler dangerous; unlike Pruitt, who was relatively new to Washington when he took the job leading the EPA, Wheeler could continue to work closely with old friends.
The duration of Wheeler’s tenure at the EPA is uncertain. Trump needs to nominate a new agency chief, and his choice would then have to be confirmed by the Senate, which may not happen by mid-term elections in November. Trump could also choose to nominate Wheeler himself, although he said last week that he wasn’t gunning for the job.