Wheeler’s confirmation as permanent head of the EPA would likely mean the agency’s multiple deregulatory actions for industry will continue uninterrupted.
While his predecessor was dogged by multiple ethics scandals, Wheeler has kept his name out of the headlines as he directs efforts to dismantle environmental regulations put in place by the Obama White House.
Those include vehicle emissions standards that were set to accelerate under the previous administration. In August, Wheeler announced plans to freeze those standards and revoke California’s authority to set stronger rules for car engines and electric vehicles.
Also in August, Wheeler announced plans to roll back the Clean Power Plan, a sweeping rule that would have required coal plant owners to shift to lower-emitting forms of power generation. EPA now plans to replace it with a less stringent rule that would only require modest efficiency upgrades at coal plants.
Wheeler has also pushed other coal sector priorities, including rollbacks of mercury pollution regulations and the nation’s first federal rules for the disposal of coal ash, a hazardous byproduct of power generation. Wheeler’s first move as acting administrator was to announce a new, less stringent ash rule for plant owners.
Environmentalists and public health groups say Wheeler’s recent work for industry represents a conflict of interest with the EPA’s regulatory mission. Until August 2017, Wheeler was registered as a lobbyist in Washington where he represented companies regulated by the EPA.
One of those clients was Murray Energy, the largest privately owned coal mining company in the U.S. In March 2017, Wheeler was present at a meeting between CEO Bob Murray and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry during which Murray gave the secretary an “Action Plan” to save the domestic coal sector.
The plan and others submitted to the White House included a number of actions EPA has since undertaken, including rollbacks of the Clean Power Plan and coal ash rule, as well as an ill-fated power plant bailout that the White House submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last year.
Wheeler defended his record as a lobbyist when he took the helm at EPA in July, touting his work on health benefits for miners, as well as his previous experience as a career staffer at EPA. Environmentalists, however, say his actions show a clear connection to the sector he used to represent.
“[P]roposals like the forthcoming rule to weaken or eliminate protections against mercury emissions make it clear Andrew Wheeler plans to continue … with rollbacks of vital environmental protections,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement. “In the confirmation process to come, I look forward to delving deeper into Mr. Wheeler’s ties to regulated industries, and how those ties have informed his decision making on issues that directly benefit those industries’ bottom lines.”
Hearings have not been set yet for Wheeler’s confirmation, but are likely early next year. Despite likely opposition from Whitehouse and other Democrats, Republican control of the U.S. Senate makes confirmation likely.