The party music started playing in my head when news broke of Scott Pruitt’s overdue resignation. But it wasn’t long before the soundtrack was overtaken by the crashing chords of The Who.
Meet the new boss.
Same as the old boss.
Pruitt’s deputy, Andrew Wheeler, takes over as head of the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday. For now, Wheeler will serve in an acting position. But he might be there a while no matter who is nominated by President Donald Trump to be the permanent chief, given election-year politics and what’s already on the Senate’s confirmation plate.
So what kind of successor will Wheeler be to the ethically challenged, scandal-tarred, deregulation-loving Pruitt? An apt comparison would be Trump being replaced by Vice President Mike Pence. Less baggage, less controversy, lower profile, same mission, better skill set to pull it off.
Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist, such a good fit these days for an agency charged with protecting the environment. The head of the EPA unit that regulates toxic chemicals, Nancy Beck, was an executive at the American Chemistry Council, the industry’s main trade association. One member of the committee that advises the EPA head on protecting vulnerable communities is the vice president of a company that twice exposed dozens of workers to carcinogenic plutonium.
There are others like them, but Wheeler stands out.
With more than two decades of Washington experience in and out of government, he is a consummate insider — precisely the type of person Trump railed against on the campaign trail. But Trump no doubt likes Wheeler’s quiet but relentless work on behalf of industry clients to weaken, delay or destroy federal regulations. Last fall, Wheeler described Pruitt’s agenda of reducing environmental protections as “getting back to the core mission of the agency.”
Like Pruitt, he is a climate change skeptic. Wheeler once was chief of staff for Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, Washington’s loudest denier of the science of human-caused climate change and a big Wheeler backer. Bad karma for Wheeler that he takes over as all-time heat records are being broken all over the world, wildfires are raging out west, and Miami is confronting projections that within 30 years, rising sea levels will submerge one-fifth of the city at high tide.
Just before returning to the EPA, where he worked during the first Bush administration, Wheeler lobbied on behalf of Murray Energy, the nation’s largest privately owned coal company, in its fight against Obama administration steps to reduce carbon emissions. Wheeler later arranged a meeting between company president Bob Murray, a big Trump donor, and current Energy Secretary Rick Perry, in which Murray presented a four-page plan for protecting struggling coal plants.
Wheeler also led the uranium mining company lobbying team that helped persuade Trump to drastically reduce the size of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, worked to get industrial plants exempted from tougher pollution controls after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and sought to help polluters be shielded from liability for the harmful release of toxic chemicals.
It’s the kind of environmental resume that makes you want to take a detox shower after reading it.
Will Wheeler’s familiarity with Washington and its players mean he’ll be more likely to reach across the aisle, as some environmentalists hope, or more able to shepherd Trump’s desired environmental regulation rollback more smoothly?
The answer seems clear.
No one will be fooled again if the new boss is even more effective than the old boss.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.