Donald Trump formally nominated Andrew Wheeler to be the Environmental Protection Agency’s new administrator, the White House announced on Wednesday. Wheeler has been the EPA’s acting administrator since last July, when his predecessor and former boss, Scott Pruitt, resigned amid a corruption scandal. The prospect of administrator Wheeler presents its own ethics concerns: Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist, and his ties to K Street create a number of possible conflicts of interest. The Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group, has filed an open records request for thousands of emails between EPA officials and fossil-fuel industry representatives. The Washington Post reported on Monday that a federal judge has ordered the EPA to release those emails within the next ten months. “The agency had initially asked the court to have until 2022 — halfway into the next presidential term — to complete the requests,” the Post wrote.
Wheeler’s nomination also affirms the Trump administration’s persistent commitment to the fossil-fuel industry. Though Wheeler is generally regarded as a more competent administrator than Pruitt, his actual policies differ little from those of his predecessor. He is a climate denialist, and as Carolyn Kormann reported for The New Yorker in July 2018, he pushes a deregulatory agenda informed by his free-market economic commitments, not by scientific evidence. Wheeler makes much of his status as the grandson of a coal miner; Rolling Stone reported last November that he mentioned the connection in his first remarks to EPA staffers. “My grandfather was a coal miner during the Depression,” he said. “My grandmother raised her children in the coal camps in West Virginia. In fact, I still have some of the company scrip that she used to buy food in the company store.”
Maybe Wheeler longs for the good old days. Under Pruitt’s watch, the EPA relaxed regulatory standards on the storage of coal ash, which can leak into local water sources and poison people, and there’s no reason to think Wheeler will change course. As a lobbyist, he represented Murray Energy, the largest coal operator in the country. Trump has been good for Murray. In June 2018, the company managed to avoid insolvency thanks to news that the Trump administration planned a bailout of coal and nuclear plants. Murray’s debt holders were encouraged by the development, Bloomberg reported at the time, and “agreed to refinance a chunk of the company’s bonds and loans.” In December, during Wheeler’s time as acting administrator, the EPA introduced a proposal that “would require new power plants to have more advanced technology than in their older counterparts and proposes a higher limit on how much carbon dioxide they can release,” ABC News reported. If these new rules go into effect they would make it easier for corporations to create new coal plants, as ABC noted at the time.
The Trump administration’s conciliatory posture toward the coal industry is expansive, involving other federal agencies and departments. While Wheeler waited in the wings at the EPA, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta eased federal oversight of West Virginia’s Affinity Mine, which is operated by Pocahontas Coal Company. As NBC News reported in September, Affinity had become subject to “tough enforcement actions” because of a pattern of safety violations. Wheeler obviously doesn’t make Acosta’s decisions, but the Affinity case does help illustrate the potential impact of Wheeler’s continued tenure at the EPA. A proliferation of coal plants plus the deregulation of coal-ash storage and a rollback of worker-safety oversight spells trouble both for the environment and for coal miners themselves. Wheeler might be the proud grandson of a miner, but if the Senate confirms his nomination, he’ll probably make mining communities even more difficult places to live.