Quickly, after so many months in the news, Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) Chief Scott Pruitt’s name has entered the way-back machine, along with his private phone booth and used mattress. Meanwhile, deputy EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler’s name and visage will become the new center-of-attention for all U.S. environmental policy going forward.
Andrew who? Exactly.
Pruitt resigned on July 5 and Wheeler, a former coal-industry lobbyist and 14-year staffer on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has ascended swiftly to be the acting EPA director through at least the beginning of 2019. The pile of policy items left on Wheeler’s new desk by Pruitt is “ginormous,” to quote a real word from the dictionary.
This pile includes continued litigation over termination of Obama-era regulations like the Clean Power Plan (CCP) and the Waters of the United States (WOTUS), changes to the way the EPA handles transparency in science and cost-benefit analysis, industry-friendly updates to methane and CAFE standards, and what to do about the environmental elephant in the room – the 2009 endangerment finding used to legally justify all government action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Wheeler is in many ways Pruitt’s opposite, so low key that the media struggled to find a picture of him to use the day after Pruitt’s resignation. Trump’s oil and gas supporters – and conservatives in general –expressed fears over the resignation, because Pruitt, in spite of his problems, was one of Trump most effective Cabinet members, helping reverse more than 70 environmental rules put in place by previous administrations.
However, while more low profile, if Wheeler has the same bias for action as Pruitt, it is possible that the next six months could be as busy as the previous year. In fact, several major policy items are already lined up for Wheeler to tackle. So far, a major revision to automobile emissions standards is expected sometime this summer, and a new rule-making for all six “criteria” pollutants that make of the foundation of the Clean Air Act is also coming.
In addition, the EPA is trying to update its methane regulations – of much interest to the natural gas industry – and needs to replace the jettisoned Clean Power Plan with something else that can pass muster with federal courts. It is also possible that Wheeler may appease demands from the loudest industry voices by reopening the Endangerment finding for further review, which would be a controversial decision (to say the least).
With the demise of Pruitt, the hope is that future debates may become more about policy and less about personality. But given how high the stakes are for environmental policy, and the hyper-partisan atmosphere in which ad hominum attacks are normalized, I fear we may be reading more about Mr. Wheeler’s eating and sleeping habits in the coming months than we would otherwise need to. Meanwhile, major policy disagreements over climate change and environment that drive elections gets short shrift.
Image credit: A G Baxter