USRN Corruption Blog Post
The Corruption Blog digs into the details of the all-encompassing corruption of the Trump administration.
Post # 19 The Corruption of Andrew Wheeler
By Sean Gray
July 27, 2020
The Environmental Protection Agency has a wide range or responsibilities related to human health and conservation. With limited time remaining to avert the worst consequences of climate change, its mission has never been more crucial. Donald Trump and many of his allies have long been skeptical of the scientific consensus that the planet is warming at an untenable rate, primarily as a result of human activity. Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist, is the EPA’s current administrator. He serves at the pleasure of the president, and is tasked with ensuring safe land, air, and water in the US. In more than two years on the job, his fealty to the president has influenced a rash of policies that run counter to his department’s stated goals.
Wheeler’s credentials make him a questionable choice for his position. He did work for the EPA in the early 1990’s. Since then his career trajectory has taken a hard left turn. Wheeler was Chief Counsel to Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, the most ardent and outspoken opponent of climate change science in Congress; the senator once brought a snowball on the Senate floor to disprove global warming. Wheeler would later serve the same role for the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public works. Most of his time was spent reducing regulations on pollutant industries. More recently, Wheeler served as a lobbyist for Murray Energy, the fourth largest coal producer in the country. When he was confirmed as deputy director of the EPA, Wheeler was asked whether or not he accepted the scientific consensus on climate change. He acknowledged that human beings have an impact on the environment, but what impact was unclear. A simple ‘’no’’ would have been briefer while expressing the same sentiment. He was confirmed by a 52-47 vote, mostly along party lines.
Rather than focus his agency’s urgent environmental protection agenda, Wheeler has made it his mission to save the coal industry and increase pollution. Upon Trump’s election, Wheeler was present at a closed door meeting attended by his former boss, Bob Murray, of Murray Energy. The eponymous CEO brought with him drafts of six executive orders that amounted to a wish list beneficial to him and his industry. Among them were a repeal of the EPA’s finding that greenhouses gases cause environmental harm and a revocation of tax credits on wind and solar energy. Trump’s signature never found its way onto any of the drafted executive orders, but the meeting, and Wheeler’s attendance are demonstrative of the influences guiding his decision making process.
As one could envisage, given his track record, Wheeler has taken a combative stance towards pollution-reducing regulation. His environmental assaults are too numerous to list, but some of the highlights include:
- Proposing to eliminate an Obama-era rule which restricts the emission of mercury from coal and oil fire power plants. Using cost-benefit analysis the previous administration determined reducing the amount of particulates in the air would prevent 11,000 premature deaths and represent $80 billion in public health benefits. Trump’s EPA distorted the numbers by magnitudes to reach a finding in the opposite direction. 20 states are currently suing to keep the rule in place.
- The Trump administration is in the final stages of weakening emissions standards in the auto industry. The SAFE rule will increase carbon emission standards in the transportation sector by 1.5% annually rather than 5% annually under the previous guidelines. Wheeler said in a statement the move strikes the correct regulatory balance between protecting the environment and setting attainable goals for car manufacturers. The administration’s stance is that the deregulation will result in cheaper vehicles for American consumer. Not only is this unsupported by data (fuel-efficient cars are cheaper over time), but the change is expected to add one billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As he has been for most of his tenure, Wheeler is in lock step with his boss and out of touch with relevant scientific data.
- Wheeler has seized on the Covid-19 pandemic to further denigrate the EPA’s work. In March, as he announced the indefinite suspension of all inspections and enforcement related to environmental laws. he informed companies that not only needn’t they meet environmental standards during the pandemic, but that the agency would not seek retroactive penalties for noncompliance.
Under the guise of increased transparency, Wheeler has sought to undermine the efficacy and reliability of his own agency’s data. By law, the EPA is required to use the best available science to inform policy decisions. Wheeler’s paradoxically named ‘’Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science’’ proposal directly conflicts with the law. The rule change would ban the use of all science in which the underlying raw data is not made publicly available. On the surface it seems benign. However much of the information gathered to inform policy, specifically relating to human health, is acquired under strict confidentiality agreements. Precluding data gathered in such fashion would do little to increase meaningful transparency. Worse, it would hinder government scientists by allowing bureaucrats to determine what information influences their policy recommendations. The rule was proposed in April of 2018 and was recently shot down in a vote by the House Appropriations Committee. An amendment banning its passage is included in an upcoming spending bill heading to the Senate. While it appears unlikely to become law, the regressive proposal is antithetical to the work of the Environmental Protection Agency.
At a 2019 rally, Trump bragged that the US had the cleanest air and water anywhere on Earth. He was apparently oblivious to a federal report released earlier in the same day showing an increas in polluted air days over the previous two years, versus the two years prior to his election. According to the State of the Air report, issued by the American Lung Association, nearly half the country’s population live in counties with unhealthy ozone or particle pollution. Neither Wheeler or Trump is solely responsible for these conditions, but their agenda has undoubtedly exacerbated the issue and will continue to do so.
Scott Pruitt, another former coal lobbyist, proceeded Andrew Wheeler as head of the EPA. He resigned amid 14 individual conflict-if-interest investigations by the Government Accountability Office. Wheeler may lack ethics violations typical of a corrupt public official, but the damage he’s wrought is more significant than a few military charters on the taxpayer’s dime. Like climate change itself, the only part of Wheeler’s job performance up for debate is how bad the damage will be.