The man poised to take the reins at the Environmental Protection Agency if Scott Pruitt falls to scandal is a longtime Washington insider and coal lobbyist who would pursue the same anti-regulation agenda only without all of Pruitt’s baggage.
Andrew Wheeler, sworn in as EPA’s deputy administrator in late April after a six-month confirmation battle, has spent decades in what President Donald Trump calls “the swamp,” first as a top aide to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) at the Environment and Public Works Committee, then as an energy lobbyist for clients such as the politically active coal company Murray Energy.
In contrast to Pruitt, an Oklahoma conservative who has alienated even some fellow Trump-supporting Republicans , Wheeler is a smooth insider with a penchant for policy details and a reputation for working well with both friends and adversaries. But those who have dealt with him say he’s on board with the broad deregulatory agenda that Pruitt and Trump are pursuing.
That presents a paradox for environmental groups, who would welcome Pruitt’s departure but fear his replacement would be a much more formidable opponent.
“Wheeler is much smarter, and will try to keep his efforts under the radar in implementing Trump’s destructive agenda,” said Jeremy Symons, vice president for political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund. “That should scare anyone who breathes.”
Symons noted that many of Pruitt’s aggressive deregulatory efforts have run into trouble in federal courts.
“The problem with the Pruitt approach is it’s like a sugar high,” said Jeff Navin, a Democratic lobbyist and former Energy Department staffer who has shared lobbying clients with Wheeler. “It feels really, really good for a moment, but if you’re not following rules and procedure, not laying down substance for decision you’re making, you’re not going to last very long.”
Another person who has worked with Wheeler said: “He’s like Mike Pence is to Trump. … He’s behind the scenes. He’ll get a lot done and doesn’t need to be in the news.”
Pruitt is hanging on so far, with Trump’s public backing, despite a welter of investigations into his first-class travels, expensive security arrangements and relations with industry lobbyists. But if Pruitt goes down, Wheeler would have the task of managing a 14,000-employee agency where much of the career staff, and even many Republican political appointees, have been demoralized by the cascade of scandals.
As the agency’s No. 2, Wheeler could immediately fill Pruitt’s shoes as acting administrator, though Trump could insert someone above him in a temporary capacity. Although Trump would also have the option of nominating someone else as a permanent successor, Senate Republicans have questioned whether any nominee could win confirmation this year.