New EPA Boss Same as the Old Boss: Pruitt Policy to Stay Intact

New EPA Boss Same as the Old Boss: Pruitt Policy to Stay Intact
The replacement of Scott Pruitt may mean a change in style but not substance at the EPA, claims a former agency official.

(Bloomberg) -- The change at the top of the Environmental Protection Agency won't mean a dramatic shift in policy. If anything, President Donald Trump's EPA could become even more effective at undoing Obama-era environmental policies under its new boss.

That's because the incoming acting administrator Andrew Wheeler, who is set take over Monday following the resignation of Scott Pruitt, is a politically savvy former Senate staffer, wise in the ways of Washington -- and getting things done. Wheeler, 53, has crusaded behind the scenes for decades to quash climate change legislation and promote coal.

Wheeler, who was confirmed to be the EPA's No. 2 official in April, could bring a quiet effectiveness to the top job that some environmentalists say will make him a more formidable opponent than Pruitt.

"There is no time for celebration," said Tom Pelton, with the Environmental Integrity Project. Wheeler, he said, "has a background just as biased toward industry as Scott Pruitt, so we and other environmental advocates are going to have to watch Wheeler just as closely as we did his former boss."

Wheeler shares Trump and Pruitt's environmental agenda, including proposals to roll back regulations addressing climate change and pollution. And in a June 27 interview, Wheeler said he's proud of his lobbying past. Although he said being called a "coal lobbyist" wasn't derogatory, it irritates him because his advocacy on energy and environmental issues was broader than any single issue.

The replacement of Pruitt may mean a change in style at the EPA, but it won't mean a change in substance, said Jeff Holmstead, a former deputy EPA administrator.

"Pruitt had never worked in a regulatory agency and didn't fully understand the rulemaking process. He was certainly engaged in the politics of environmental issues, but he wasn't always engaged in the substance," Holmstead added. "In many ways, Wheeler is the polar opposite."

Some policy initiatives could be even easier to advance, predicted Stephen Brown, a vice president of federal government affairs with refiner Andeavor.

"The agency will likely run smoother and generate less collateral baggage when moving major initiatives," Brown said by email. "Andy knows how to make the trains within the agency and in the political arenas run on time."

Wheeler said in the June 27 interview his priorities at the EPA include clarity regarding environmental permitting and enforcement actions. Delays in getting essential permits -- or decisions about them -- especially hurt small businesses, he said.

Wheeler also said he wants the EPA to get better at informing affected communities about potential risks in straightforward, easy-to-understand ways -- erring on the side of speed, even if the agency must correct information later on.

Trump praised Wheeler on Thursday, telling reporters on Air Force One that "Andy is going to do a great job," he said. He did not say whether he intended to nominate Wheeler for the EPA administrator position on a permanent basis, which would require Senate confirmation.

A Long Association

Wheeler's entire professional life has been tethered to the EPA, beginning in 1991, when he was hired for a non-political job focusing on toxic chemicals.

After four years working at the EPA under former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, he shifted to Capitol Hill, working for Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. That included time as an adviser to Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who famously carried a snowball onto the Senate floor to dispute the effects of climate change.


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