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Here's Why Environmental Groups Aren't Celebrating Pruitt's Departure

Conservationists believe Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, may be even more dangerous than his predecessor.
Andrew Wheeler.

Andrew Wheeler.

Facing at least 13 federal investigations and an "unrelenting" public, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned on Thursday. In Pruitt's stead, Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler will now serve as the acting administrator until President Donald Trump nominates a permanent successor. (Trump very well could name Wheeler, though Wheeler said he has no interest in the administrator position.)

During his short tenure, Pruitt took aim at nearly every Obama-era environmental regulation, undermining the Clean Power Plan, the Clean Water Rule, fuel efficiency standards, and coal ash waste regulations, to name just a few. He also stocked the agency with lobbyists, shifted its focus away from climate change, and waged a war on science-based policy. Still, environmental and public-health advocates aren't necessarily celebrating Pruitt's departure.

"I think he's just as dangerous as Scott Pruitt," says Mary Anne Hitt, the director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.

Unlike the embattled former administrator, Wheeler has managed to keep a low profile over the course of his long career in Washington. Wheeler started out at the EPA under the first Bush administration, served as a legislative aid to Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), one of the Senate's most rabid climate deniers, and spent years lobbying on behalf of the fossil fuel industry.

"That's not something that's in his distant past, that's something he's been acting on as recently as last year," says Jesse Prentice-Dunn of the Center for Western Priorities, citing Wheeler's work for the uranium mining company Energy Fuels Resources. In 2017, Wheeler pushed staff at the Department of the Interior to shrink Bears Ears National Monument to give the company access to uranium and vanadium deposits protected by the monument. Wheeler also famously lobbied for Murray Energy, a coal company whose chief executive officer, Robert Murray, is a long-time Trump supporter and donor.

The coal baron gave Trump a memo with a "wish list" of environmental rollbacks, many of which Pruitt attempted to fulfill. And environmental groups expect Wheeler to pick up where Pruitt left off.

"There are a set of safeguards that have been put in place to protect the public from coal pollution that are on Murray's wish list and I'm sure are on Wheeler's to-do list," Hitt says. "The Clean Power Plan, coal ash safeguards, smog and haze standards, water pollution standards—for the coal industry alone there are a dozen air and water safeguards that Pruitt had been working to undermine. Wheeler is certainly going to continue that work because he comes from that industry."

"Don't expect the EPA to change and be a more environmentally friendly agency under Andrew Wheeler," says Emily Knobbe of the Center for Biological Diversity. "He is more of the same that we've seen from Trump's nominations, and he will continue to dismantle all the environmental work that past administrations have put in."

The Environmental Protection Agency's logo is displayed on a door at its headquarters on March 16th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

The Environmental Protection Agency's logo is displayed on a door at its headquarters on March 16th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

While Pruitt wasn't very successful at his policy agenda—at least six of his attempts to rollback Obama-era regulations were struck down by the courts—some worry that Wheeler's background as a "beltway insider" will help him succeed where Pruitt failed. "With Pruitt you had someone who seemed to be a lobbyist for industry while working at the EPA," says the Environmental Defense Fund's Keith Gaby. "With Wheeler you have someone who actually was a lobbyist."

What's more, Wheeler will likely avoid the sort of flagrancies that ultimately doomed his predecessor, according to Gaby. "He's not likely to fly first class on taxpayers' dollars, or any of the other scandals that brought Pruitt down," Gaby says. In some ways he's more dangerous because he's not going to do the flagrantly attention-grabbing things."

"The real danger of Pruitt was his letting industry do what it wants without considering the pubic-health impacts," he adds. "Wheeler's got the same agenda, but as a lobbyist and congressional staffer he knows how to work the bureaucratic machinery."

Environmental groups like the Sierra Club will be pushing hard for Trump to nominate someone with a demonstrated track record of protecting human health and the environment, rather than someone with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry. In the meantime, conservationists are hoping the same legal hurdles and public scrutiny that stymied Pruitt will prevent Wheeler from picking up where his predecessor left off.

"I expect that Wheeler will try to carry forward the agenda that Pruitt set in motion, and hopefully he will run into as many hurdles as Scott Pruitt did," says the Sierra Club's Hitt, "because ultimately it's not what the American people want, it runs counter to the mission of the EPA, and it's illegal."