EPA chief Andrew Wheeler went straight to Fox News for his first post-confirmation TV interview

Wheeler: “Is climate change the existential threat? I don’t see it as the existential threat, no”

On March 4, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler gave his first televised interview since being officially confirmed for the position on February 28. Predictably, the interview was on Fox News, where Wheeler got a friendly reception and a platform to make several dubious claims.

This appearance was in line with Wheeler's trend of favoring right-wing media for his televised interviews. Of his five previous TV interviews since becoming acting administrator of the EPA in July 2018, four went to right-wing outlets, including one with Fox News and another with the Fox Business Network. Wheeler's only TV interview outside of the right-wing echo chamber was with ABC News on February 13, in the weeks between his Senate confirmation hearing and the final vote on his confirmation. (In recent days, Wheeler also gave interviews to at least four right-wing online outlets at the Conservative Political Action Conference -- BreitbartTownhall, The Daily Signal, and The Daily Caller.)

In his March 4 interview with guest host Charles Payne on Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto, Wheeler made a number of head-scratching claims and continued to promote his agency’s rollbacks of environmental protections.

Right off the bat, Wheeler tried to downplay the seriousness of climate change, stating:

As far as the largest environmental issue facing the planet today, I would have to say is water. The fact that a million people still die a year from lack of potable drinking water is a crisis. Is climate change the existential threat? I don’t see it as the existential threat, no. We have a lot of environmental threats, we have a lot of environmental problems, but we’re working to address all of them.

While access to clean drinking water is a serious issue, water and climate change are inexorably linked, and worsening global warming will affect not just the quantity but the quality of drinking water.

And while Wheeler talked about the importance of clean water, the EPA has proposed to roll back major federal water protections -- a move that would please a number of industries that have been lobbying for just such a change.

Wheeler also touted a downward trend in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions:

CO2 emissions peaked here in 2005; they’ve been declining ever since. 

Wheeler conveniently left out the fact that U.S. emissions actually rose sharply in 2018. And according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. emissions are far higher than they should be if we are to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

Wheeler also spoke about his agency’s efforts to loosen vehicle emission rules. He stated that under the EPA's proposal for lower fuel-efficiency standards, “the price of a car should go down by about $2,300.” But he neglected to mention that reductions in fuel economy might actually lead to higher costs for Americans because they'll have to buy more gasoline. Wheeler also failed to note that these rollbacks would significantly increase CO2 emissions and could lead to declines in safety.

Finally, Wheeler lamented that his critics only focus on the fact that he was a lobbyist for a coal company, failing to note that he was a lobbyist for many other companies too. Perhaps they focus on this fact because when he represented coal giant Murray Energy, Wheeler lobbied against greenhouse gas regulations and other climate change policies -- the same kinds of policies he's now working to overturn.

From the March 4 edition of Your World with Neil Cavuto:

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Perhaps nothing is more extreme than the Democrats' plan to completely take over American energy and completely destroy America's economy through their new $100 trillion Green New Deal.


CHARLES PAYNE (GUEST HOST): We're going to put President Trump down as a no. Obviously he's no fan of the Democrats' Green New Deal. We'll see if he brings it up. He has remarks coming out of the White House and we’re gonna bring them to you as soon as we get them. But first, to the man who is in charge of environmental policy for the administration, what he thinks about this green new push. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler joins us with his first interview since being confirmed for the post. First of all, congratulations.


PAYNE: A lot of noise being made about this. You know, all the presidential candidates, or at least the majority of them that I’ve seen, back a Green New Deal push. And it’s resonating in this country. What do people have wrong about this?

WHEELER: Well, you know, I took a hard look at it when it came out. I just don't think it's ready for prime time. It makes a lot of wild promises I just don't think can be implemented or achieved.

PAYNE: But would you say, OK, we need a better climate. We should do something to address climate? Do you see it as the existential threat that within 12 years, if we don't do anything, that's it? We’ve crossed the Rubicon, kiss Earth goodbye.

WHEELER: No. As far as the largest environmental issue facing the planet today, I would have to say is water. The fact that a million people still die a year from lack of potable drinking water is a crisis. Is climate change the existential threat? I don’t see it as the existential threat, no. We have a lot of environmental threats, we have a lot of environmental problems, but we’re working to address all of them.

PAYNE: Well, what exactly -- in America, because globally -- and I want to get to water too, in America. Where would you rank these issues, though, as you take over this position, where's your initial main focus going to be?

WHEELER: When President Trump asked me to take over this position, he said continue to clean up the air, continue to clean up the water, and continue to deregulate to create more jobs for the American public.

PAYNE: Can those co-exist? Can you deregulate and not pollute the air at the same time?

WHEELER: Absolutely. From the 1970s to today, our six criteria air pollutants have been reduced by 73 percent. At the same time, our GDP has increased over 200 percent. We can do both.

PAYNE: Speaking of which, Andrew, since the Paris accord, CO2 emissions have continued to go up, particularly in places like China and India. Is it folly to even say -- even if this was considered -- if you thought this was the ultimate problem, isn't it folly to think that the American taxpayer should spend $100 trillion over 10 years to try to clean up an issue that doesn't even emanate from this country?

WHEELER: You’ve got a really good point there. You know, CO2 emissions in this country peaked in 2005; they’ve been declining ever since. And the problems are in other countries like China which hasn’t even yet peaked on their CO2 emissions.

PAYNE: I want to ask you about water, since you brought it up. CDC reports contaminated water in this country, it's a bigger issue than people know, isn't it?

WHEELER: It is a big issue, but I don't want to scare people either. We have the cleanest, safest drinking water in the world and we're constantly working to improve it and protect it and make further progress on the drinking water side.

PAYNE: But the issue is PFCs, is that what the issue gets back to?

WHEELER: On the PFAS/PFOA chemicals?


WHEELER: We are addressing that. We've taken eight enforcement actions just over the last couple years to clean up that chemical where we find it. We’ve assisted states in dozens of other cleanups around the country. So we are addressing it. We're addressing it in multimedia fashion.

PAYNE: Another issue you're gonna be involved in are these CAFE standards, these fuel-efficiency standards for fleets of cars, as they’re produced by automobile makers. I believe that they went to draconian levels under the prior administration. That being said, California doesn't want to change theirs. Where are we going with this? Because if these automobile companies have to make money-losing cars to meet these standards, it does no one any good and it certainly will hurt employment.

WHEELER: Absolutely. And under our proposal, the price of a car should go down by about $2,300. Americans will be able to buy newer cars, getting older cars off the road, and then people into newer cars is better for the environment.

PAYNE: And what do you say to environmentalists? And they say OK, to reach those goals that means you are gonna allow a lot of things that have harmed this, our environment in the past.

WHEELER: Well, you know, we're just talking about energy efficiency on the CAFE standard. We're still capturing the pollution that comes out of cars, we’re still going forward on pollution controls for automobiles. But that's separate from the efficiency or CO2 release.

PAYNE: OK, but I think the idea is that the further they go on a gallon of gasoline, the less gasoline or fossil fuels that we use.

WHEELER: Sure. And to bring this back to the Green New Deal, though. Under the Green New Deal, I would -- you'd have to do away with the internal combustion engine within 10 years. And that is where we burn our ethanol. I’m really going to be interested to see the presidential, the Democratic presidential candidates when they go to Iowa before the Iowa caucuses and they try to explain to the people who live there why they don't want to have ethanol and going into the future. There’s a lot of ramifications from the Green New Deal that people don't realize.

PAYNE: You're in this position, but there is a lot of criticism. You’re a coal guy.

WHEELER: Well, I represented over 20 different companies when I was in private practice. The coal company was one company.

PAYNE: What do you say to your critics who say, hey, you’ve got someone from the coal industry in charge of the environment. That makes no sense at all.

WHEELER: Well, you know I started my career at EPA as a career employee. After law school, I worked there for four years. I worked in the United States Senate for 14 years before I went to private practice. When I was in private practice, I represented over 20 different companies. I represented an environmental air quality management district in California. Nuclear industry. A solar company. I represented the gamut of energy and environment companies. For some reason, my critics only focus on one client. And for that coal company, my No. 1 issue for them was trying to shore up the miners’ health care and pension benefits for the last four years that I worked for them, trying to improve the United Mine Workers’ retirees. So I'm very proud of what I did on behalf of that company. But it was only one of 20 some companies.

PAYNE: Before I let you go, again, environment probably a major issue for 2020. No doubt about it. How will you be able to reassure the public that maybe either they're getting misinformation or that information is being -- you know, someone is fanning the flames just a little bit too much.

WHEELER: This morning we released our Superfund assessment from last year. We cleaned up 22 -- we delisted 22 sites last year, the most since 2005.

PAYNE: Andrew, congratulations. Really appreciate it.

WHEELER: Thank you, sir.

Update (3/5/19): This post was updated to reflect the fact that Wheeler gave interviews to at least four right-wing online outlets at CPAC.