You could be forgiven for thinking that when a new administrator took the helm of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in July, a collective sigh of relief would be heard from the organisation’s staff and climate advocates all over the country. After all, the previous EPA chief Scott Pruitt, fired by Donald Trump amid a flurry of scandals, had done everything in his power to undermine the agency and roll back environmental regulations.
However, under Pruitt’s successor and former deputy Andrew Wheeler, we can in fact expect the US government’s blatant disregard for climate efforts of any kind to intensify. Wheeler differs from his predecessor in a number of respects. Unlike Pruitt at the time of his appointment, he is no stranger to the EPA, having worked there in the early ‘90s. His remit included areas such as toxic chemicals and air pollution prevention.
He subsequently put his insider knowledge to use as a lobbyist for the coal industry, with clients including mining company Murray Energy and power plant operator Xcel Energy. Another difference is that Wheeler prefers to avoid the limelight, in keeping with his previous job: his effectiveness as a lobbyist depended largely on staying out of the public eye and operating behind the scenes.
Wheeler also worked for Senator Jim Inhofe, an avowed climate change denier who for years has striven to discredit climate researchers in his capacity as chairman of the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. He once described the EPA, now headed by his protégé Wheeler, as a “Gestapo bureaucracy”.
Behind the scenes
In light of all this, it may at first appear surprising that in an interview with the Washington Post this week, Wheeler stated: “I do believe climate change is real. I do believe that people have an impact on the climate.” Only at first sight, though: the native Ohioan, who originally trained as a lawyer, went on to underline his intention to carry on dialling down the scope of the agency’s activities – particularly where climate action is concerned: “I know that there’s a number of senators that would like us to go much further, but of course environmental organizations would love us to go much further. But you’re not going to see the EPA, at least under my direction, make up a lot as we go along.”
Instead, Wheeler simply plans to act on the laws passed by Congress – and the instructions of the president. “I don’t think the overall agenda is going to change that much, because we’re implementing what the president has laid out for the agency. He made several campaign promises that we are working to fulfil here.”
One such promise was a resurgence of coal power. In this regard, Wheeler seems like the ideal candidate for Trump, who recently tweeted: “I have no doubt that Andy will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda. We have made tremendous progress and the future of the EPA is very bright!” The new EPA boss has already announced plans to replace Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan. He had already pursued this goal as a lobbyist – now he is in a position to complete his mission.