By Michael Brune, Sierra Club
The acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, seems determined to avoid the career missteps of his predecessor. Scott Pruitt, of course, finally got the boot from when the endless revelations of his corruption, paranoia, and secrecy became unsustainable for even a Trump appointee. (Some of the most damaging Pruitt material, I don’t mind saying, came to light thanks to dogged Freedom of Information Act work by Sierra Club attorneys — both staff and pro bono volunteer.)
The centerpiece of Wheeler’s “I’m not Scott” campaign is a memo he sent to EPA staff this week promising “a commitment to transparency,” which is about as un-Pruittanical as you can get. I’d like to believe Wheeler’s sincere, but I can’t help recalling that Scott Pruitt himself showed up at the EPA offices on his first day quoting John Muir — and look how that turned out.
So instead of relying on Wheeler’s public pledges, let’s consider what we actually do know about him. We know that he spent years working on the staff of Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma — Capitol Hill’s most committed tin-hat–wearing, snowball-tossing climate delusionist. We also know that Wheeler parlayed that job experience into earning a living as a lobbyist for a rogue’s gallery of polluting industries, including mining, coal, gas, nuclear energy, and lackluster auto companies.
We’re not talking chump change, either. Murray Energy alone paid Wheeler at least $300,000 every year from 2009 to 2017. Let’s see, that comes to at least $2,700,000 flowing from the self-professed “largest underground coal mining company in America” straight into Andrew Wheeler’s pockets. And this is the guy we’re supposed to trust to regulate how much pollution the coal industry can dump into our air and water? It’s hardly surprising that legal questions have already been raised about Wheeler’s dubious encounters with former lobbying clients since he came to the EPA.
Wheeler may be anxious to distinguish himself from Scott Pruitt, but it’s only because he wants to avoid his predecessor’s ignominious fate, not because he doesn’t share his predecessor’s perverted, polluter-first principles. Although Wheeler has backed off on one of Pruitt’s most legally shaky positions, the truck glider rule, he is absolutely committed to following through on Pruitt’s master plan of rolling back as many environmental protections as possible with no regard for basic science,climate change, or damage to public health. He hasn’t even been in charge for a month, and he’s already moved to roll back protections from coal-ash pollution.
This polluters-first agenda is as unacceptable from Wheeler as it was from his former boss. That’s why the same team that helped expose Pruitt is already hard at work on holding his successor accountable. If Wheeler thinks that paying lip service to transparency will make his anti-environmental mission any easier to implement, he’s wrong. Let me be completely transparent about this: Andrew Wheeler won’t be able to reverse a single environmental protection unless he gets past us first.