Andrew Wheeler will be the acting administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now that Scott Pruitt has resigned. Wheeler is a former lobbyist for coal, natural gas, chemical, and utility companies, and was a long-time aide to the Senate's most ardent climate denier, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK).
Wheeler once promoted a conspiracy theorist's video that defended Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right provocateur who actively promoted neo-Nazi and white nationalist views as an editor for Breitbart. From an April Daily Beast article about Wheeler by reporter Scott Bixby:
In August 2016, Wheeler publicly defended alt-right troll Milo Yiannopolous after the latter was banned from Twitter for encouraging users to harass actress Leslie Jones. In a now-deleted tweet, the lobbyist linked to a six-minute video, “The Truth About Milo,” produced by InfoWars editor-at-large and noted conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, in which Watson posited that conservatives might be “banned from using the internet altogether if they trigger your butthurt.”
Wheeler felt compelled to delete another social media post from that year. In February 2016, he shared very negative feelings about then-candidate Donald Trump on Facebook. That post is no longer visible on Facebook, but is captured in this tweet:
Wheeler's full Facebook post from Feb. 2016 here: pic.twitter.com/yMOllGrIlD
— Dino Grandoni (@dino_grandoni) October 8, 2017
Despite that post, Trump nominated Wheeler to the EPA's No. 2 spot in October, and the Senate confirmed him in April. Since the beginning of this year, Wheeler has not posted anything publicly on Facebook, and all of his tweets have been retweets except for one praising Trump's State of the Union address:
— Andrew Wheeler (@AndrewRWheeler) January 31, 2018
Wheeler had also avoided talking to reporters this year, but he broke his silence last week:
Andrew Wheeler, No. 2 at EPA, has been dead silent since the Senate confirmed him 3.5 months ago. Now all of a sudden he’s given at least four interviews to news outlets, all published within the last 24 hours. What gives?
— Lisa Hymas (@lisahymas) June 28, 2018
On June 27, The Hill, the Washington Examiner, and Bloomberg all published articles based on interviews with Wheeler, and on June 28, the Journal-News, a paper from Wheeler's hometown area in Ohio, published an article based on an interview with him as well.
Wheeler told the Examiner and The Hill that he wasn't looking to take Pruitt's job. (He got it anyway.) He told Bloomberg that, because he used to lobby for the coal industry, he was recusing himself from broad deliberations over taking emergency steps to save coal plants. And he talked to the Journal-News about the EPA's current focus on cleaning up contaminated sites via the Superfund program.
Most of what Wheeler said in his recent spate of media interviews was unremarkable, but one thread was surprising. Wheeler -- who's fully on board with the EPA's current agenda of rolling back public health protections -- claimed in two of those interviews to be concerned about environmental justice.
That is particularly important, Wheeler said, in areas with high concentrations of minority populations. They are often closest to manufacturing and other polluting sites, and the EPA has an “environmental justice” responsibility to consider the unique impacts of pollution on them.
Wheeler made a similar point in his interview with Bloomberg:
“I don’t think the agency historically has done a consistent job of describing what the risk is that Americans face,” Wheeler said, citing statements about air quality in New York after the 2001 terrorist attacks and the integrity of drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Wheeler said the burden falls disproportionately on the poor, “who often live the closest to facilities.”
Environmental-justice advocates might be surprised to hear those kinds of statements from a man who has endorsed Pruitt's environmental agenda. As Wheeler told The Hill, “I’m here to help Administrator Pruitt with his agenda and President Trump’s agenda for the agency.” Their agenda has been to sideline, rather than prioritize, environmental justice.
Experts recently projected that the changes Pruitt and Trump have proposed to environmental regulations could lead to tens of thousands of premature deaths over a decade and hundreds of thousands of cases of respiratory infections in children. Given that air pollution hits minority communities harder than white ones, many of those suffering from EPA rollbacks would be people of color.
Wheeler's comments about environmental justice seem like an attempt to soften his image and allay very real concerns about what he'll do at the agency. He made a more flippant attempt to soften his image during his interview with the Journal-News, saying, “Yes, I represented a coal company, but I also represented a cheese company.”