Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, finally resigned on Thursday. He spent the last few months looking like one of those birthday clowns that pulls an interminable chain of handkerchiefs out of their pocket, except the handkerchiefs are scandals and the pocket is a Tartarus of arrogance and graft.
The federal government opened no less than thirteen investigations into Pruitt’s criminality, which includes such memorable gags as when he paid a lobbyist friend $50 a night for an AirBnb in the heart of D.C. One afternoon Pruitt fell asleep on the job there, and his security detail — which cost more than twice as much as any other EPA chief’s security detail, and whom Pruitt enlisted to take care of his dry cleaning and buy him moisturizer — grew worried their unresponsive boss might need to be rescued, so they broke down the door. Pruitt then had the government agency he ran pay the condo association $2,460 to fix the door.
Bad as Pruitt was, though, the guy filling his shoes, Andrew Wheeler, is worse. This is a common refrain, because the Trump administration is basically a hydra, or rows of shark teeth: When one person goes, more terrible people pop up in their place. What’s even worse, the people Trump initially picks to run things are all show-dog imbeciles with little government experience, so even though they want to do bad things, they’re too incompetent to accomplish anything, but the people right behind them tend to be the kind of vicious and effective career officials that Trump should have nominated in the first place. (One exception here being, thankfully, Jeff Sessions, who is apparently backed by someone with a spine and a conscience.)
Such is the case with Pruitt and Wheeler: They’re both climate change deniers who want to dismantle the EPA and roll back as many environmental regulations as they possibly can. But Pruitt couldn’t do it. In fact, six of his initiatives were struck down by the courts. Weirdly, Pruitt’s scandals covered his real scandal: He was a failure.
Wheeler, though, is competent. For environmentalists and rational people across the globe, then, Pruitt’s resignation, gratifying it may be, isn’t cause for joy: Wheeler might be worse.
Here are five things you need to know about the man now charged with destroying the planet in the most profitable way possible.
Like Pruitt, Wheeler hails from Oklahoma, but unlike Pruitt he’s an experienced beltway insider who knows D.C. and how to work it: quietly and slowly.
Wheeler actually served at the EPA before, in the George H.W. Bush administration, where he worked through 1995 under Clinton. In the 2000s he served as chief of staff to Oklahoma Senator James Mountain Inhofe, the most prominent Republican climate change denier, and during that time was also a staff member for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which Inhofe headed. Wheeler spent a total of 14 years with Inhofe, who was also a mentor to Pruitt and a host of his EPA senior staff.
Unlike Pruitt, Wheeler avoids the spotlight. Colleagues have described him as someone who effects his agenda quietly, championing the interests of the fossil-fuel industry without fanfare, but by slowly weakening or delaying federal regulations.
“Andrew is one of the most well-known, well-respected policy professionals in Washington on energy and environment—he knows everybody,” said Matthew Dempsey, who knew Wheeler through their work with Inhofe on the Hill, and who now does consulting for the oil and gas industry. “He understands the Trump administration and will carry out the agenda, but he’s been around Washington a long time. He knows how D.C. works and he does things by the book.”
Former Clinton White House climate adviser Paul Bledsoe agreed, telling the New York Times, “Many worry Wheeler will be more effective at implementing Trump’s anti-environmental agenda than Pruitt was.”
Wheeler still wants to keep his head down. In an interview this June with the Washington Examiner, Wheeler said he didn’t want Pruitt’s job: “I could have put my hat in the ring for the administrator. I wasn’t interested in that. I am still not interested in that.”
But now that he has it, what will his agenda be?
Wheeler has been a coal lobbyist, too, most specifically on behalf of Murray Energy, which calls itself “the largest coal mining company in America.” We recently learned that the head of Murray Energy, Robert Murray, donated $300,000 to Trump’s inauguration fund, and later gave the president a wish list of coal industry regulations he wanted Trump to eliminate. Trump immediately sic’d Pruitt on them, who went after Obama-era regulations on pollution and carbon emissions and sowed doubt about climate science, much of it in the name of the fossil fuel industry.
Again, though, Pruitt’s efforts mostly failed. As Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass) said of Wheeler’s ascendance, “The EPA is only trading one fossil fuel friend for another.” And probably a better one.
You probably won’t fall over dead when I tell you Wheeler is a climate change denier. In 2006, when he was a staffer on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, he said the planet could actually be going through a cooling cycle. It’s not: The six hottest years on record have all occurred since 2010, and 17 of the 18 hottest have occurred since 2000. And the three hottest years on record? The last three.
And in congressional testimony last fall, Wheeler ducked the issue: “I believe that man has an impact on the climate,” Wheeler said, “but it’s not completely understood what that impact is.”
But it goes beyond denial to outright sabotage. Wheeler actually does want to regulate greenhouse gases, just not in the interest of slowing climate change. In 2004 he said, “I think the only reason it’s important to reduce greenhouse gases is to increase efficiency.”
Both Wheeler and Pruitt have a longtime connection to Senator James Inhofe, who mentored them as well as most of the senior staff now working at the EPA. In fact, Inhofe — who wrote a book about global warming called The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future—is the single most influential force behind Trump’s environmental agenda. The group of former Inhofe staff now at the EPA are nicknamed the “Inhofe Mafia.”
Basically, Inhofe, who is in his 80s, thinks scientists are liars. In 2003, Inhofe said global warming might be a good thing: “Thus far no one has seriously demonstrated any scientific proof that increased global temperatures would lead to the catastrophes predicted by alarmists. In fact, it appears that just the opposite is true: that increases in global temperatures may have a beneficial effect on how we live our lives.”
Inhofe also famously demonstrated why science was stupid when he brought a snowball in to the Senate floor one late February afternoon: “You know what this is?’” he asked his fellow Senators. “It’s a snowball, from outside here. So it’s very, very cold out. Very unseasonable.”
It happened to be very, very cold out because it was February in Washington, D.C. Also, it turned out that year — 2015 — ended up ranking as the hottest year on record, a record that got broken again the next year.
It’s no accident that one of Pruitt’s main campaigns at the EPA was to methodically undermine climate science, both globally and in his own department.
Now Wheeler has inherited Pruitt’s staff, which is thick with former Inhofe staffers. The EPA’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, worked for Inhofe for more than a decade. The Deputy Chief of Staff also served with Inhofe. The head of the agency’s Office of Enforcement was chief counsel for Inhofe’s Environment and Public Works Senate committee. The senior policy advisor to Pruitt, Amanda Gunaekara, was the one who gave Inhofe the snowball on the Senate floor. Gunasekara also told coal industry representatives, “I’m here to talk to you to make sure what [the EPA is] doing in D.C. is beneficial for you.” The EPA’s Deputy Associate Administrator and Senior Advisor for Policy and Strategic Communications are also Inhofe grads.
At least Wheeler has one thing going for him. In February 2016, he wrote in a since-deleted Facebook post:
If you are considering voting for Donald Trump please think about the following: 1) no one really knows what his political beliefs are, he has donated to both parties over the years and to people with completely different views. 2) he has demonstrated through the debates and interviews that he doesn’t understand how government works.”
He also said Trump “really hasn’t been that successful.”
To that end, we’ve got to remember that Wheeler is only the acting head of the EPA, who will stay in that position until Trump nominates a new official, who must then go through Senate confirmation. That could take months, possibly past midterms. So yes, it’s possible Trump will nominate Wheeler, but given that post, and given Wheeler’s publicly stated aversion to that leadership position, it’s not likely. Whether that’s good or bad isn’t really a question, either. This is the Trump administration. There will be no good options.
According to NASA, the globally averaged temperature of the land and ocean in 2017 was 0.9 degrees Celsius (1.62 Fahrenheit) above the 20th century average. But given we’re already halfway past the goal outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit), it might not matter all that much who, or what, Trump nominates next.