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New EPA chief draws sharp contrast to Pruitt
Andrew Wheeler quickly made waves in his first week as the interim head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), drawing a sharp contrast with his predecessor.
Wheeler was tapped to lead the agency last week when scandal-plagued Administrator Scott Pruitt stepped down.
In his short time at the EPA's helm, Wheeler had made a show of trying to patch up relationships with career employees, the media and Democrats, all of whom felt slighted by Pruitt. All the while, Wheeler has made it a point not to criticize Pruitt.
He's also sought to put an emphasis on the environmental and public health missions of the EPA and committed to new transparency measures.
"He's doing a great job," said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), for whom Wheeler worked for more than a decade as a senior aide to the Environment and Public Works Committee.
"He is making an effort to be different than anyone else," said Inhofe, who also counts himself as a proud ally of Pruitt. "Because he knows the job, and it seems that he can connect with people and listen to them. He's doing a great job."
But Wheeler, who used to lobby for energy companies including a major coal producer, has also made it clear that he won't stray from the highly controversial EPA priorities of the Trump administration and his predecessor, including rolling back regulations and improving relationships with regulated industries like coal.
The early changes under Wheeler, though, have given rise to cautious optimism among Democrats and career agency employees, who were so angered by Pruitt's tenure that almost any replacement would have been an improvement for them.
"My sense is that he has begun to reach out to the rank-and-file employees of the EPA, to try to convey to them that he values them and the work they do, which would probably be a little more than they've heard in the last 18 months," said Sen. Tom Carper (Del.) the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee. "And I think that's a positive thing."
Other Pruitt foes, like environmental groups, point to Wheeler's policy plans and see more of the same, minus the ethics and spending scandals.
"While he likely won't be ordering used Trump hotel mattresses or renting a condo from lobbyists, Wheeler so far gives no indication he will clean up the most serious scandal of Pruitt's tenure: Undermining health protections for American families as a favor to politically connected industries," said Keith Gaby, chief spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund, referring to two of Pruitt's controversies.
Wheeler has been working on environmental policy in Washington, D.C., for more than a quarter century, having started in the early 1990s in the EPA's toxic substances office.
"I know that many of you developed a passion for the environment at an early age and pursued a career at EPA for that reason," he told the agency's employees - numbering around 14,000 - Wednesday.
"Just like me, you came to EPA to help the environment. I know first-hand how dedicated and passionate you are and it is a privilege to work alongside you and lead EPA in its vital mission of protecting human health and the environment."
He later worked on Capitol Hill for 14 years, and then the private sector, doing consulting and lobbying for more than a dozen clients, including coal-mining company Murray Energy Corp. and uranium producer Energy Fuels Inc.
His experience stands in contrast to Pruitt's. While both men have fought Democratic environmental efforts, Pruitt had little experience in environmental policy, save for having sued the EPA 14 times, mostly unsuccessfully.
Wheeler ascended to the EPA's top spot Monday thanks to Pruitt's July 5 resignation announcement. Pruitt left after months of escalating scandals over his ethics and spending decisions, including allegations that he assigned staff to carry out personal tasks like finding lotion for him and that he rented a condo at below-market rate from a lobbyist.
Wheeler hit the reset button on Day One. His spokesman John Konkus said that day he would bring a "change of tone" in communications and promised more transparency.
In the following days, four of the top aides to Pruitt said they were resigning, although one had made her decision before Pruitt stepped down.
Wheeler spoke to staff Wednesday and invited numerous reporters, a move which was very rare under Pruitt.
"I will start with the presumption that you are performing your work as well as it can be done. My instinct will be to defend your work and I will seek the facts from you before drawing conclusions," Wheeler said.
Wheeler also remarked that "you can't lead unless you listen" - a line Pruitt also used in his February 2017 inaugural speech, as first pointed out by Mother Jones.
Sources familiar with Wheeler's arrangements say he eschewed Pruitt's 24-hour security detail and instead returned to the set-up of his predecessors, in which guards mostly drive him between destinations. He also reopened to staff a big corridor in his office suite that Pruitt had closed off.
Career employees, who were openly hostile to Pruitt, showed some optimism after his first days.
"I was impressed with his openness and his understanding of how the career staff have felt over the last 18 months," said one career worker. "I have cautious optimism that morale will improve."
Another was less forgiving of Wheeler, but still found room to give him credit.
"I appreciate his background, as it mirrors my own. But in addition to our different perspectives on regulation, I don't believe he can address the poor career managers that ... don't manage staff," the employee said.
But while the tone is different, the policy is the same.
Wheeler made clear in his speech that major Trump administration priorities like deregulation and increasing "certainty" for business in the name of creating jobs would continue.
"Thanks to the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt, we have made tremendous progress over the past year and a half," he said.
Wheeler said the EPA is "restoring the rule of law, reining in federal regulatory overreach and refocusing [the agency] on its core responsibilities. As a result, the economy is booming and economic optimism is surging."
As an early example, the EPA indicated it would not walk back one of Pruitt's final actions: a decision to not enforce new limits the Obama administration put on sales of trucks with older engines that bypass recent pollution standards, known as glider trucks.
Green groups say they won't give Wheeler a pass over such policies.
"The next administrator of the EPA needs to restore public trust in the agency, let it fulfill its mission, and clean up Scott Pruitt's mess, but Andrew Wheeler is doing nothing but following in Pruitt's dirty footsteps," Maura Cowley, director of the Sierra Club's Resist campaign, said in a statement.
"Wheeler looks a lot like Pruitt 2.0, and no one should have confidence that he will do what is necessary to keep our families safe from the corporate polluters who signed his paychecks just months ago."
Republicans, however, are glad to have Wheeler at the helm and to have Pruitt's scandals largely behind them.
"Let me tell you, Andrew Wheeler knows more about that job than anyone in America today," said Inhofe.
Wheeler is limited to 210 days as acting administrator. By that point, the administrator must be someone nominated by Trump and confirmed by the Senate.
Asked he would support his nomination, Inhofe said he saw no reason not to back him.
"He worked for me for 14 years, why wouldn't I support him?"
Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's environment subpanel, said he was glad Wheeler called him during his first week on the job, which he saw as a good sign for his tenure.
"It's a new day," he said. "Let's give him a chance to see what he can do."