Andrew Wheeler has the potential to be even more dangerous than Scott Pruitt

Andrew Wheeler has the potential to be even more dangerous than Scott Pruitt
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Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittJudge rules against Trump attempt to delay Obama water rule Acting EPA Administrator Wheeler, please listen to your boss and approve year-round E15 Reforms can stop members of Congress from using their public office for private gain MORE’s resignation as EPA administrator was absurdly overdue. Pruitt was one of the most ethically clueless public officials I’ve come across in 30 years of writing about American politics. Every bit as troubling, however, was his mission of tearing down the agency he was supposed to lead. Pruitt weakened enforcement, censored science and rolled back bedrock standards for public health, clean air and water, and climate change. The cost of his actions will be measured in human lives.

It is Pruitt’s mission of destruction that the new acting EPA chief, Andrew Wheeler, apparently plans to continue. Wheeler, who was confirmed as Pruitt’s deputy in April, has the potential to be even more dangerous than his predecessor.

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His decades-long career in Washington includes 14 years working for Sen. Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofePence announces first steps in establishing 'Space Force' EPA chief: Obama car rule rollback would save consumers 0B EPA’s Wheeler gets warmer welcome at Senate hearing MORE (R-Okla.), Congress’ most prominent climate change skeptic and an outspoken proponent of weakening pollution protections. Wheeler then spent years lobbying for energy clients, including coal giant Murray Energy.

 

Unlike Pruitt, Wheeler understands all too well how to operate smoothly and avoid becoming a target. Pruitt’s staggering list of personal ethical lapses were so brazen he caught the attention of late night talk show hosts and riled even staunch Trump supporters. Wheeler has a reputation for quiet efficiency and staying out of the limelight.

Wheeler must return the agency to its core mission of protecting public health, guided by science, not the needs of politically connected industries. The reckless undermining of air, water, health, and climate protections must stop — and those safeguards must be restored.

Wheeler now faces a moment of truth. Between the precedents set by Pruitt and the urgent business on his desk, Wheeler has the opportunity to show the world what his intentions are. He can either right the disastrous course set by his predecessor, or carry on the assault on public health and conflicts of interest that defined Pruitt’s tenure.

Here are a few suggestions if he wants to surprise advocates like me and make a new start:

Pruitt took the unprecedented step of hiding his calendar from public view, which freedom-of-information filings revealed to be littered with meetings with big energy executives. No administrator ever tried this before, and none should ever try it again. This is an easy fix: Wheeler should open up his calendar to public view immediately.

While he’s at it, he should disband Pruitt’s absurd security detail, fly coach, and sell at public auction the $43,000 “cone of silence” phone system Pruitt had installed for putative security reasons. He should put the proceeds back into the EPA budget, which in real funding is less than half what it was in the mid-1970s.

Pruitt worked to suppress science and scientists. That policy was illustrated Friday, when a report showed several of his top advisers are suppressing an EPA study that found most Americans are inhaling formaldehyde vapors at such high levels as to put them at risk of leukemia. Wheeler potentially has an enormous conflict of interest here: This is a report from his own agency’s staff that he is tasked with leading. And while working as a staffer for Inhofe and the Environment and Public Works Committee, in 2004, Wheeler himself worked to delay a report on the dangers of formaldehyde.

Wheeler should show he will bring science and scientists back to the forefront of the agency’s work. Letting this study see the light of day would be a good start.

Given his history as a lobbyist and close ties to the energy industry, Wheeler should require all officials who worked for lobbying firms or trade associations to recuse themselves for all decisions involving their former employers’ clients or members.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Wheeler’s firm was once paid $250,000 to oppose sensible EPA standards on asthma-causing ozone emissions. Wheeler should have nothing to do with ozone decisions going forward.

Wheeler should also reveal the details of his fundraising activities for at least the 12 months prior to becoming deputy administrator of EPA.

Former Wheeler client Murray Energy wrote a “wish list” for environmental deregulations designed to prop up the failing coal industry. Those wishes included slashing staff at the agency and rolling back environmental protections. Wheeler must pledge to not be involved in decisions involving this list.

If it seems unreasonable to expect the acting EPA administrator to put such constraints on his behavior, it is only because having a coal lobbyist as acting EPA administrator is untenable. Wheeler has no business holding this job.

Pruitt’s departure is a moment to savor for anyone who cares about clean air and water, climate change, and ethical governance. It’s a moment to celebrate the efforts of the environmental community, the press, and Americans across the country who worked to expose Pruitt for the man he is. But Pruitt is a symptom, not a cause.

The Trump administration, enabled by this Congress, will continue to attack our essential pollution protections for years to come, unless the same coalition that helped oust Pruitt stands up to them. We must hold Wheeler to the same standards to which we held Pruitt.

Pruitt seemed to think that an unflinching hostility toward public health, the environment and American taxpayers was some sort of badge of courage. We have proven him wrong. And we will be equally relentless in our opposition to anyone who chooses to emulate him.

Eric Pooley is senior vice president at Environmental Defense Fund. He has served as managing editor of Fortune and White House correspondent, chief political correspondent, and national editor at Time.