Critics fear Scott Pruitt's replacement at the EPA will be even worse

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent

Meals at Washington’s best restaurants, a $50-per-night apartment on Capitol Hill, a $43,000 secure communications booth, a security detail befitting a head of state, regular first-class travel back home to Tulsa, as well as to international destinations like Morocco: Scott Pruitt has certainly lived his best life as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. He has also capably executed President Trump’s deregulatory agenda, moving to rescind or delay dozens of rules, including those pertaining to water quality, vehicle fuel efficiency, chemical safety and industrial effluents.

Pruitt’s policy moves have earned the praise of pro-business conservatives and the ire of liberals. “The worst EPA administrator in history,” climate activist Tom Steyer called him after the EPA decided it would allow industry lobbying groups to have a say in how their respective sectors would be regulated.

But even if Pruitt has taken to the nation’s environmental regulations like a sacking Visigoth to the walls of Rome, there are growing signs that Trump has grown exasperated with the EPA administrator, in large part because his penchant for the good life seems to have no bounds, and has conflicted with Trump’s “drain-the-swamp” promise. White House staffers are reportedly pushing for Trump to fire Pruitt, whose closest staffers abruptly resigned last week, leaving Pruitt “paranoid and isolated” within EPA headquarters, according to an Axios report.

EPA Director Scott Pruitt. (Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty)

Environmentalists will surely cheer Pruitt’s demise, but his widely expected departure is unlikely to slow the Trump administration’s assault on the EPA, in large part because of the man waiting in the wings: Andrew R. Wheeler. Confirmed as the EPA deputy administrator last month, Wheeler is regarded by many as more savvy and knowledgeable than Pruitt, but is also seen as being less prone to scandal and distraction.

“Wheeler is truly dangerous because he’s a lifelong insider and lobbyist — so he knows how to work the system,” Keith Gaby, communications director for the Environmental Defense Fund, told Yahoo News. “He’s the man in a gray suit who will be smart enough not fly first class, or build secret phone booths, or do any of the glaringly sleazy things Pruitt has done. But he will quietly eviscerate the clean air and water safeguards that his clients have long paid him to oppose.”

Pruitt came to Washington from Tulsa, where he’d risen from Oklahoma state senator to state attorney general, a post he used to sue the EPA on 14 separate occasions. Wheeler, on the other hand, is a longtime denizen of the Beltway. He worked at the EPA in the early 1990s, thrice earning the agency’s Bronze Medal. Wheeler subsequently worked for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and for Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the most prominent climate change denier in that chamber. Inhofe is also a mentor of sorts to Pruitt; it is widely believed that Pruitt would eventually like to run for Inhofe’s seat should the 83-year-old choose to retire.

In 2009, Wheeler left Capitol Hill for the infinitely more lucrative precincts of K Street, where he joined Faegre Baker Daniels to work as an energy lobbyist. Among his clients was Robert E. Murray, the coal magnate who has in good part informed Trump’s environmental agenda, and who has been a consistent champion of Pruitt. Wheeler also represented Energy Fuels Resources, a company that mined uranium. He is also reportedly affiliated with the Washington Coal Club, an industry association.

Whereas the frequently smirking Pruitt has invited visceral disdain from liberals, Wheeler embodies the inoffensive look of Washington’s permanent class. But his views on climate change and industrial pollution seem hardly more forward-looking than Pruitt’s. Since he has already been confirmed by the Senate, there is little Democrats can do to stop him from becoming the agency’s acting head. And with Pruitt gone — a firing that many believe could take place within days — it could prove difficult to convince the public that the seemingly milquetoast Wheeler is a danger to the environment of the same caliber.

Andrew Wheeler during his confirmation hearing to be Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency before the United States Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 8th, 2017. (Photo: Alex Edelman/CNP via ZUMA Wire)

“If Pruitt is fired, I will be happy to see him go,” Rep. Don Beyer, Democrat of Virginia, told Yahoo News, “but I will remain focused on getting the EPA to return to its mission of protecting public health.” Beyer says that, should Wheeler become the EPA’s acting director, he expects that “his actions will be closely scrutinized, and that he will be held accountable by Congress.”

Wheeler did not respond to a request for comment. Jahan Wilcox, an EPA spokesman and trusted Pruitt aide, also did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and a query sent to Pruitt’s four EPA email addresses went unanswered. (It is not common for federal officials to have four email accounts, though Obama-era EPA chief Lisa P. Jackson also used an undisclosed email account during her time at the agency.)

For career EPA officials, Pruitt’s term has been such a disaster for the agency that even the elevation of a coal lobbyist would be a welcome change. Wheeler “won’t be as devastating as Pruitt,” says John J. O’Grady, an engineer in the EPA’s Chicago office and chapter president of a labor union for EPA employees. Despite concerns about Wheeler’s past as a coal lobbyist, O’Grady believes that Wheeler will at least not use the EPA’s budget as his own personal expense account and “may be a little better at the bureaucracy of the agency.”

Mostly, though, O’Grady is looking for the unrelenting bad press to end. “That would be nice — not to have the constant embarrassment,” he says.

That time appears to be drawing near. Asked about Pruitt’s future earlier this week, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said she did not “have any personnel announcements on that front,” a clear sign of eroding confidence in the embattled EPA chief. “Certainly we have confidence in the No. 2,” she added.

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