Andrew Wheeler, newly appointed acting administrator of the EPA, said when President Donald Trump asked him to take over from the now-departed Scott Pruitt, he told Wheeler to do three things: “Clean the air, clean the water, and provide regulatory relief.”
“I think we can do all of these things at the same time,” Wheeler said in a speech to EPA employees Wednesday at the agency’s Washington headquarters. He told EPA employees he values their contributions and wants their input – something career employees felt they didn't hear much from former administrator Pruitt.
“I know first hand how dedicated and passionate you are, and it is a privilege to work alongside you,” Wheeler said. “I value your input and feedback and you will find my team and me ready to listen.”
“I will start with the presumption that you are performing our work as well as it can be done,” he added. “My instinct will be to defend your work, and I will seek the facts from you before drawing conclusions.”
Wheeler also went off script to explain his work as a lobbyist for coal company Murray Energy. He said he lobbied to “shore up retirement and health care benefits for the United Mine Workers” an that he was “not at all ashamed of the work I did for the coal company” without mentioning it by name.
Wheeler signaled he intends to continue with the same agenda pursued by Pruitt: Cleaning up Superfund sites, working collaboratively with states to these regulatory burdens, and emphasizing the importance of the “rule of law,” a frequent Pruitt point of emphasis.
Improving in his areas of focus – regulatory certainty for states and for businesses seeking permits from the agency and certainty on risk communication – "will improve environmental protection,” he said, citing approvingly the agency’s recent decision to grant National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permitting authority to Idaho and efforts to collaborate with the states on air quality.
On permitting, "We need to be more responsive," he said. “We are now tracking the time to issue permits,” with the goal of making decisions within six months. He stressed that he didn’t mean all permits should be granted within six months, just that decisions are made in that time frame.
Regarding enforcement, he said it’s important to make “timely and consistent” decisions so businesses know where they stand and do not have to continue reporting on pending enforcement actions to shareholders.
“I am not advocating for letting people off the hook or reducing fines,” he said.
“We must be able to speak with one voice and clearly explain to the American people the relevant environmental and health risks that they face,” he said. “We need to be consistent across the board … so no matter what region you live in, you get the same information.”
Wheeler did not mention the agency’s effort to rewrite the “waters of the U.S.” rule. EPA is in the process of repealing and replacing that rule.
Wheeler kicked off his speech by mentioning his background at EPA, where he started his career in what was then the Office of Toxic Substances, which was reorganized multiple times while he was working there. Wheeler brought the subject up as a way of saying he understands how stressful transitions can be, and he wants to minimize that stress for current employees.
Wheeler also worked 12 years on the staff of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, six as staff director of the committee's clean air subcommittee and six as staff director and chief counsel for the full committee. He also was chief counsel for Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., for two years. Prior to joining the agency as deputy administrator last year, he spent nine years at the energy and climate change practice group at Faegre BD Consulting in Washington, D.C.
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