President Donald Trump on Wednesday nominated Andrew Wheeler as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, setting him up to permanently fill a position the former coal lobbyist has held in an acting role since July.
Wheeler is the latest former employee of an industry regulated by the agency he now leads to be on the verge of ascending in the president’s Cabinet.
Last year, the Senate confirmed Alex Azar, a former executive at the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. On Jan. 1, former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan took over as acting secretary at the Department of Defense after Secretary James Mattis’ abrupt resignation. The next day, David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist and No. 2 at the Department of the Interior, became acting secretary when the agency’s boss, Ryan Zinke, stepped down amid mounting ethics probes.
Wheeler’s promotion was expected. Trump announced plans to nominate Wheeler to the job in November. Wheeler, the former deputy administrator, told The New York Times that month that he felt he was “making a difference.”
“This is a transitional time for the agency,” he said. “We’ve started a number of initiatives that I’d like to see through to conclusion.”
Wheeler took over the agency six months ago when scandal-plagued former Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned in disgrace. Close allies of Pruitt, including Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), swiftly touted Wheeler as an adequate replacement who would reliably carry out Trump’s pro-fossil-fuel agenda.
Wheeler delivered. In August, he proposed gutting fuel economy standards for new vehicles in a move seen as a “giant giveaway” to oil companies even as electric automobile technology made historic leaps forward. Weeks later, he unveiled a rule to weaken a landmark Obama-era power plant regulation, allowing by the EPA’s own calculus enough pollution to cause an additional 1,400 premature deaths per year.
In November, when scientists at 13 federal agencies, including the EPA, determined in the annual National Climate Assessment that global warming was rapidly worsening, Wheeler responded by threatening to intervene in the next report’s drafting.
In December, Wheeler handed two more victories to the coal industry that paid him to lobby until mid-2017. In the first week of the month, he proposed softening a rule requiring coal-fired power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. By the end of the month, he announced plans to relax a rule restricting how much mercury and other dangerous pollutants coal-fired plants can release into the air.
Installing Wheeler as the nation’s 15th EPA chief is a formality. Last month, Wheeler became the longest-serving acting administrator in the EPA’s 48-year history, surpassing Bob Perciasepe’s roughly five-month stint as acting administrator in 2013. Acting rules for the EPA are vague and have generally gone unchallenged, and some argued Wheeler could have remained in his current role for the rest of Trump’s first term.
Yet with a Republican majority in the Senate, Wheeler seems likely to win confirmation.
His nomination to serve as Pruitt’s No. 2 faced little opposition. Democrats largely overlooked him during the initial confirmation hearing in November 2017. He couched blatant climate change denial in smooth legalese. He appeared moderate next to Kathleen Hartnett White, the right-wing ideologue nominated to serve as the head of the Council on Environmental Quality, whose humiliating performance captured Democrats’ attention at the confirmation hearing she shared with Wheeler.
Wheeler’s nomination finally came up for a vote in the Senate last April as allegations against Pruitt began to surface. Ahead of the vote, at least one Democratic senator warned that the process seemed “like a shadow confirmation vote for the next administrator of the EPA.” Yet every Republican and three Democrats in the Senate ― more support than Pruitt himself received in his confirmation vote ― confirmed him as Pruitt’s No. 2.
Republican challengers unseated two of those Democrats, and the remaining one, Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), is expected to support Wheeler again.
Wheeler has faced his own controversies. As HuffPost reported in October, the agency chief repeatedly engaged with incendiary, partisan content on his personal Facebook and Twitter accounts over the past five years. The online activity included liking a racist image of former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on Facebook and retweeting an infamous “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist. At least two Democratic senators called on him to resign.
In early February last year, The Intercept reported that Wheeler held fundraisers for Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Inhofe in May, five months before his formal nomination to be deputy administrator came before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, on which the senators serve.
That same month, HuffPost reported that two nonpartisan groups of regional air pollution regulators accused Wheeler of abusing his power as a Senate aide in the early 2000s to “bully” and “intimidate” the organizations when they opposed a bill Inhofe, Wheeler’s boss at the time, introduced.