Recently, the U.S. Senate confirmed Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal industry, as the second-highest ranking official in the EPA, in a move that makes the agency even more friendly to Big Coal.
Now the deputy EPA administrator, Wheeler comes to the agency after a stint as the head lobbyist for Murray Energy, the largest underground coal mining corporation in the nation. During his time with Murray Energy, Wheeler helped the coal producer work with the Trump administration to promote deregulation of the industry, including allegedly working on a controversial “action plan” proposed to President Trump by Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray, a close Trump confidante.
Democrats in the Senate pounced on Wheeler’s involvement with Murray Energy, saying that he had a clear conflict of interest as a former lobbyist and industry insider (Wheeler was also a key aide to Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe). Republicans, however, were quick to point out how Wheeler had previous experience with the EPA, from his time in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics during the George W. Bush administration.
Three Democratic senators, all from coal-friendly states, voted for confirmation.
Wheeler will serve as the agency’s chief operating officer, tasked with the day-to-day running of the EPA. He will be overseeing everything from personnel and information systems to the budget and the agency’s financial operations. It is unclear at this time how much involvement Wheeler will have in formulation of the EPA’s regulatory policy, but one could assume he will work closely with embattled administrator Scott Pruitt to continue the agency’s move toward deregulation.
How much of an impact Wheeler’s position will have on the coal industry has yet to be determined. On one hand, Wheeler, like Sen. Inhofe, Pruitt, and his former boss, Bob Murray, believes that while man may be involved with climate change, the extent of that involvement is unclear and warrants further scrutiny – a typical stance taken by those in the Trump administration that signals a reluctance to regulate based on climate change.
On the other hand, Wheeler told senators that the agency’s authority by law to regulate greenhouse gas emissions was settled law, which is contrary to what Murray and others in the Trump administration believe.
If Wheeler has less of a role to play in policy formulation, though, his stance one way or the other may not have much of an impact. Should Pruitt be forced to resign or is relieved of his position by the president for numerous scandals and controversies, however, Wheeler would assume the top spot and have more of a direct role in agency policy.
In any respect, Wheeler’s confirmation is a positive sign for the coal industry that the days of strict regulation under the Obama administration are over, and that the agency is working to adopt a coal-friendly regulatory framework that will help fulfill President Trump’s campaign promise of bringing jobs back to the industry.