By: Daisy Clennon
This past Wednesday, the 16th of January, was Andrew Wheeler’s EPA confirmation hearing. The hearing came at a controversial moment: in the midst of the longest-ever government shutdown, and with no immediate reason to confirm the acting administrator as the official EPA head. For this reason, the hearing was criticized by Democrats for wasting time that could be better spent finding a shutdown solution. Furthermore, Wheeler had some of the EPA staff who were deemed “essential personnel” help him prepare for the hearing. Democrats and environmentalists found this frustrating, as they thought there were more “essential” tasks for the fraction of still-working EPA staffers.
Agency nominees are confirmed by the Senate, and since Republicans hold the majority, it is almost certain that Wheeler will be confirmed. Wheeler became acting head of the EPA when Scott Pruitt resigned over the summer. Pruitt was a high profile figure in the Trump Administration and was well known for his lawsuits with EPA prior to becoming its administrator. Since Wheeler is about to be confirmed, let’s take a look at his record and at his confirmation hearing.
Wheeler was Pruitt’s deputy and has been acting head of EPA since July of 2018. His first foray into the environmental world was in 1991, as a special assistant for the EPA’s toxics office. Wheeler then worked with the Senate Committee on Environment and Public works in different roles, two of which were Chief Counsel for Senator Jim Inhofe, and Chief Counsel to the Committee itself. In these roles, Wheeler worked in favor of industry deregulation. Senator Inhofe is notoriously anti-climate change and well known for bringing a snowball to the Senate floor to prove that climate change isn’t real. After working as Chief Counsel, Wheeler spent nearly a decade as a coal lobbyist. He defended some of the most prominent coal lobbying firms in the United States.
During his confirmation hearing, Wheeler stated that he would try to implement the Trump Administration’s environmental agenda and that he would stick to Pruitt’s plan for the EPA. Wheeler also refused to criticize Pruitt in any way. Fortunately, Wheeler does admit that climate change is real and that people have impacted the climate. Despite this acknowledgement, Wheeler was not prepared to make any changes to deal with climate change. He said that as Administrator, the EPA would follow the directive of Congress in terms of environmental laws, but would not go further. The vast majority of legislation surrounding environmental issues came out of the 1960s and 1970s. While climate change was on the horizon by this point (the issue was first discovered in the 1800s, confirmed by 1860, and was further researched throughout the 1900s) the vast majority of our environmental legislation does not deal with what is arguably the worst crisis humanity has ever faced.
Instead, the Trump Administration’s directive is to continue the deregulation of industries. Scientists have found that following the Trump Administration’s environmental plan is worse than doing absolutely nothing at all. This is reminiscent of the Reagan Administration’s environmental rollbacks of the 1980s. The EPA, then lead by Anne Gorsuch, dismantled many of the environmental successes of the Carter and Nixon administrations, implemented harsh budget cuts, and worsened the bureaucratic complexities of the agency.
The ties Wheeler and Pruitt have to the corporations EPA is supposed to regulate brings up the concept of regulatory capture. Regulatory capture is when a government agency works in favor of the industries it was created to regulate. In an analysis by the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, it was determined that there was a systematic shift in the influence of corporations over the first year of the Trump administration. Wheeler has shown no initiative in deviating from this agenda.
At such a crucial time in history, it is obvious that at the very least, an EPA administrator should have no ties to the corporations that have changed the very chemistry of our planet. In order to make much needed change, in order to protect the communities that have been destroyed by toxins, in order to protect communities dealing with climate change-exacerbated natural disasters, in order to protect the water supplies that are rapidly becoming a scarcity, and in order to make the United States a leader in the greatest global crisis we have faced, we need to have an Environmental Protection Agency administrator who wants to protect the environment.