Following Scott Pruitt’s resignation as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, his acting replacement Andrew Wheeler says he plans to employ a less confrontational approach but has also signaled he is likely to retain controversial policy changes related to how EPA vets and uses science.
While the full implications of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s July 6 resignation remain uncertain, Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler has indicated he plans to take a less confrontational approach than his predecessor, emphasizing he will consult EPA career employees and scientists before making major decisions.
However, he has also made clear he supports Pruitt’s aims and policies. Under his watch, the agency is expected to continue pursuing a deregulatory agenda and is likely to retain a set of controversial new policies for evaluating and using science.
Before Pruitt’s resignation, Wheeler had served as Pruitt’s deputy administrator since being confirmed in April on a largely party-line vote of 53 to 45.
Acting administrator to continue Trump deregulatory agenda
In a July 6 interview with the Washington Post, Wheeler left no doubt he will continue in Pruitt’s footsteps in pushing through President Trump’s deregulatory agenda at the agency, including rolling back the Obama-era Clean Power Plan (CPP) regulating U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from electric power plants.
EPA announced last October it had begun the formal process of repealing the CPP, and EPA submitted a replacement plan to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review on July 10. Although its details are not yet public, the New York Times reports the replacement plan would significantly scale back the CPP’s scope, focusing on reducing emissions at individual coal plants instead of establishing industry-wide emissions caps.
Wheeler told the Post,
I don’t think the overall agenda [at EPA] is going to change that much, because we’re implementing what the president has laid out for the agency. ... But there will probably be a little bit of difference in the way Administrator Pruitt and I will talk about some issues. There have already been some differences in how I’ve talked to EPA employees since I’ve been here.
Wheeler backs rationale behind controversial EPA science policies
In the Post interview and at his Senate confirmation hearing last November, Wheeler generally embraced the rationale behind two controversial policy changes to how EPA evaluates and uses science for agency decision-making.
Last October, Pruitt issued a directive reconstituting the members of the agency’s advisory boards and barring all current EPA grant recipients from serving on them. While he argued the rule is critical for preventing conflicts of interest and ensuring objectivity, several scientific societies and congressional Democrats voiced opposition. They argued the rule limits the range and quality of scientific advice the agency receives, and said it effectively prevents many academic scientists from serving on EPA advisory panels, paving the way for the agency to stack them with industry scientists. A group of current and former advisory board members have sued EPA over the rule, calling it “unlawful, arbitrary, and capricious.”
In his interview with the Post, Wheeler observed he was not at EPA when Pruitt reconfigured the panels, but said he supports Pruitt's stated rationale for the policy, remarking:
On the Science Advisory Board, I think it’s important to be very transparent, and I think it’s important to make sure people who serve on the science advisory boards don’t have conflicts of interest. . . . I understand the desire to make sure that the people serving on the board weren’t also benefiting from science grants from the agency.
However, he added that it is important to respect scientific opinion, saying:
I did do my undergraduate work in biology. I do not consider myself to be a scientist, and I’ve always deferred to career scientists on issues of science. I’ve done that in the two and a half months I’ve been here, and I’ll continue to do that.
Another rule Pruitt proposed in April of this year, titled “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” would constrain EPA from basing its decision-making on studies where their underlying data and models are not publicly available. In announcing the rule, Pruitt's EPA argued it would enhance the transparency of the science underlying agency rule-making and cited it as being in line with the scientific community’s efforts to address the "replication crisis" in science. Scientific and environmental organizations have voiced strong opposition, warning the proposed rule would exclude critical scientific studies from consideration and could compromise the privacy of sensitive personal health information. Over 100 House members signed onto a bipartisan letter dated June 7 calling for it to be withdrawn.
Contrary to convention, EPA did not consult with the agency’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) before it proposed the rule. On May 12, the SAB issued a memo detailing its concerns, including that the proposed rule was “developed without a public process for soliciting input from the scientific community.” More recently, the SAB announced it will formally review the rule.
Although Wheeler has not publicly taken a position on the transparency rule, at his November confirmation hearing Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) asked about his views on “the role that [sound science] plays in the federal regulatory process,” and the importance of “being able to release the information upon which environmental policies are being based so that we can gain confidence in those decisions.” Wheeler replied that he prioritizes transparency but that at the same time he intends to listen to EPA career scientists and its external science advisory boards on what constitutes the “best available science.” He elaborated,
I … believe that all that [science] should be out in the public for everybody to see, because I think when we make informed decisions and we explain to the public why we are making the decisions, that is paramount to what we do at the agency.
Greenhouse gas endangerment finding is ‘settled law,’ Wheeler says
In addition to the rule changes, Pruitt also proposed a “red team, blue team” exercise to bring together proponents and skeptics of the mainstream consensus on climate change science in a contentious debate format, and he pushed the administration to televise the proceedings. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly nixed the idea months ago, and there is no indication Wheeler will revive it.
Asked by the Post to summarize his views on climate change, Wheeler replied that while he believes the Clean Power Plan is “outside the four corners of the Clean Air Act,” he does acknowledge human-caused climate change is “real.”
Prior to his confirmation, Wheeler worked as a lobbyist at a private law firm representing energy companies and before that as the staff director for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works reporting to its Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK). Inhofe is a prominent critic of the mainstream consensus on climate change science who has called climate change “the greatest hoax” ever perpetrated and famously threw a melting snowball on the Senate floor in a symbolic attempt to debunk it.
When pressed on EPA’s position on climate science, Wheeler said he is “very critical of the method that [EPA] used to come up with” its endangerment finding that greenhouse gases threaten public health, which is the scientific basis for regulating greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, he acknowledged the endangerment finding has been thoroughly litigated and the courts have consistently upheld it, and so he regards it as “settled law.”
Some environmental groups feared Pruitt was laying the groundwork to eventually repeal the endangerment finding, but Wheeler signaled that such an avenue is unlikely, remarking,
There would have to be a major, compelling reason to try to ever reopen that.