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Trump to nominate coal lobbyist Wheeler to lead the EPA

It may be tempting to think Andrew Wheeler's leadership of the EPA won't be much worse than Scott Pruitt's. Think again.
The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stands in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)
The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stands in Washington, D.C.

When a series of head-shaking scandals and investigations forced Scott Pruitt to resign as the EPA administrator in July, those concerned with the environment breathed a sigh of relief. That exhale ended the moment they saw who'd take Pruitt's place.

Donald Trump announced at the time that the Environmental Protection Agency would be led, at least temporarily, by Andrew Wheeler -- a former lobbyist for, among others, Murray Energy, one of the nation's largest coal companies. Wheeler also served as chief counsel for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of the nation's preeminent climate deniers.

The New Republic's Emily Atkin recently explained, "Wheeler is not just the figurative embodiment of the swamp, but the literal embodiment of it. The coal industry is responsible for 72 percent of toxic water contamination in the United States, making it the nation's largest water polluter. That's according to the agency where Wheeler is about to be second in command – the agency that is charged with protecting clean water."

It's against this backdrop that the president intends to remove the word "acting" from Wheeler's current job title. The Washington Post reported:

President Trump said Friday that he intends to nominate former industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as the Environmental Protection Agency's next administrator, a move that would ensure a continued deregulatory push at the agency.Trump made the impromptu announcement during a Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House, saying that Wheeler had done a "fantastic job" as the agency's acting administrator in recent months. Wheeler took the helm in early July after Scott Pruitt resigned amid mounting ethics scandals.

Some may be tempted to assume that Wheeler's leadership of the EPA won't be much worse than Pruitt's. I disagree.

Pruitt wasn't just accused of widespread corruption; he was also hopelessly incompetent. In many respects, environmentalists got lucky in this regard. I'm reminded of this New York Times  report from April:

[L]egal experts and White House officials say that in Mr. Pruitt's haste to undo government rules and in his eagerness to hold high-profile political events promoting his agenda, he has often been less than rigorous in following important procedures, leading to poorly crafted legal efforts that risk being struck down in court.The result, they say, is that the rollbacks, intended to fulfill one of the president's central campaign pledges, may ultimately be undercut or reversed.... Six of Mr. Pruitt's efforts to delay or roll back Obama-era regulations -- on issues including pesticides, lead paint and renewable-fuel requirements -- have been struck down by the courts. Mr. Pruitt also backed down on a proposal to delay implementing smog regulations and another to withdraw a regulation on mercury pollution.Richard Lazarus, a professor of environmental law at Harvard, told the Times, "In their rush to get things done, [Pruitt and his team are] failing to dot their i's and cross their t's. And they're starting to stumble over a lot of trip wires, They're producing a lot of short, poorly crafted rulemakings that are not likely to hold up in court."

Wheeler, in contrast, knows what he's doing.

Under Mr. Pruitt, who resigned July 5 under a cloud of ethics investigations, the agency pushed for ambitious but fast-paced rollbacks of environmental rules. At least a half-dozen of those have been struck down by federal courts.Mr. Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who served as Mr. Pruitt's deputy, has brought a more disciplined approach to dismantling environmental rules. It is an approach that may take longer, but it may be more effective in standing up to the inevitable legal challenges.Prof. Richard L. Revesz, an expert in environmental law at New York University, said Mr. Wheeler was "trying to be more careful and less sloppy" than his former boss. "By taking time to improve the quality of the legal justifications, Wheeler may ensure that E.P.A. won't be subject to losing on certain types of policies," Professor Revesz said.

Maybe some Senate Republicans will balk before confirming a coal lobbyist to lead the EPA? Don't count on it. In the next Senate, at least four GOP senators would have to balk -- and in April, when the chamber voted on Wheeler's nomination to be deputy administrator of the EPA, literally zero Republicans voted "no."

That includes the ostensible "moderates" -- Maine's Susan Collins and Alaska's Lisa Murkowski -- both of whom backed Wheeler's confirmation.