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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.
Besides his personal troubles, Pruitt arrived at EPA as one of its most determined adversaries, having filed a series of lawsuits in concert with industry groups to overturn the agency’s Obama-era climate and environmental regulations. Pruitt’s security team also blocked most agency employees from entering rooms and corridors near his third-floor offices.
Wheeler, in contrast, came to the agency steeped in its work. He spent four years working at EPA at the start of his career, before going on to work for Inhofe and the Senate environment committee. He helped create the federal ethanol mandate that remains a major source of friction for EPA, dividing Republicans in the Senate. He also represented coal magnate Bob Murray as a lobbyist through the battles over the Obama administration’s climate regulations for power plants, and then later in trying to persuade the Energy Department to bail out financially ailing coal power plants.
Former Hill colleagues emphasize his ability to find common ground with political opponents, including former Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), and former liberal Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, both of whom have chaired the environment committee. Matt Dempsey, who worked for Wheeler under Inhofe, said Wheeler’s ability to find common cause was one factor in the Jeffords-Inhofe and Jeffords-Boxer relationships that led to passage of highway bills and other major legislation.
"A lot of that is due to Andrew," said Dempsey, now a managing director at FTI Consulting. "He has an ability to work across the aisle and get things done.”
That ability to work the Hill could be critical at EPA, where Pruitt’s work on making changes to the ethanol program has divided oil-state and corn-state Senate Republicans. Those efforts have especially infuriated corn supporters led by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who accused Pruitt this week of "screwing the family farmer."
Wheeler’s former colleagues think he might be able to smooth those waters.
"He is someone who, generally on policy, though we might not always agree, is someone who will listen to the other side of the aisle on how we formulate policy,” a Democratic aide who has worked with Wheeler told POLITICO, noting that that trait could be especially important if the House or Senate flips after the midterms. “Being a product of the Senate and of the Congress, it will be much easier for those who are here to interact with him."
Among other things, the Democratic aide said, Wheeler respects Congress’ role in the authorization and appropriations process and would be much more willing to appear at congressional hearings – unlike Pruitt, who has been scarce on the Hill.
The aide also said they think Wheeler’s reputation as a “rule-driven” staffer would ensure stricter adherence to ethics standards at the agency.
Wheeler may also be better able to repair the fractured relationship between the political appointees at the top of the agency and career staff, who have felt left out or ignored by Pruitt on key issues. Wheeler has spent some of his first days back at the agency visiting the offices of career staff and making introductions, a marked change from his boss, according to an EPA official.
"The impression he creates is very personable, respectful, good listener," said another EPA employee. "He’s very interested in being involved in the substantive issues. He’s ready to get involved in our issues."
Still, most of the people interviewed agreed that Wheeler would advance Trump’s and Pruitt’s agenda of undoing major Obama-era regulations, including the power plant climate rule and a sweeping measure on streams and wetlands.
“I think that Andrew is well aware of the president’s agenda, and the parts of the agenda that are the responsibility of the EPA,” said Andy Ehrlich, now a partner at the lobbying and political consulting firm Total Spectrum, whorecruited Wheeler from the Hill in 2009 to the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels and worked with him for years. “I would expect based on my experience with Andrew to do what he can to see that the president’s s agenda at the EPA is fulfilled in a methodical and thoughtful way.”
Pruitt and Wheeler may have some small differences: The Democratic aide said Wheeler might offer more support to the agency’s research, in contrast to Pruitt. But people who know Wheeler see him as a “true believer” in rolling back regulations who is comfortable in the weeds of policy.
That’s the worry of environmental groups, which note the years Wheeler spent working with Inhofe, who calls human-caused global warming a "hoax," and Murray, a fierce opponent of EPA’s climate regulations.
Wheeler’s “entire professional career, most of it has been devoted to resisting attempts to improve the quality of our air and our water and the safety of our communities,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune. “He fought against safeguards to limit mercury poisoning. He fought against protections to limit the amount of ozone in our skies. He fought against air pollution from neighboring states. He’s a climate denier. So sadly he fits in well with EPA leadership.”
Environmental groups also believe Wheeler has his own ethics baggage, citing reports that he held fundraisers for political patrons in the months ahead of his official nomination to EPA. Brune held out one bit of hope – that Wheeler would face the same obstacles as Pruitt in turning back EPA’s environmental protections.
“Any executive with EPA, administrator or deputy, will have a hard time trying to float the findings of the scientific community and operate against the public will,” Brune said. "I don’t think Wheeler would be more effective at that than Pruitt has been.”
Emily Holden and Anthony Adragna contributed to this report.