Five things to know about the new EPA acting administrator

On July 6, Scott Pruitt stepped down as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency after months of controversy. Andrew Wheeler, then the agency’s deputy administrator, was appointed interim head, a role he assumed just a day later. Less than a month into his tenure, it’s hard to know precisely what direction he’ll take the department, or what his legacy will be, but decisions he’s historically made and the path of his career offer some clue. 

Christina Simeone, director of policy and external affairs for the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, part of PennDesign, offers four facts about Wheeler, plus a tip on how to protect the environment for future generations.  

1. Wheeler is a Washington insider. Not only has he been in D.C. for most of his career, but he’s previously held a role at the EPA, in the Pollution Prevention and Toxics office of the George H. W. Bush administration. “He knows how the system works,” Simeone says. “That could mean he might actually be more effective than Pruitt was, assuming he doesn’t make the same kind of ethical mistakes, which were almost unprecedented.” 

2. He is more similar to Pruitt than he is different. Though Wheeler has already indicated some noticeable changes, namely offering more calendar transparency and pledging to lean on long-time EPA staffers, his beliefs align pretty closely with Pruitt’s. “They’re both lawyers. They both have ties to Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, who is a staunch climate denier and fossil-fuel advocate,” she explains. “Both have advocated on behalf of the fossil-fuel industry, and both are climate skeptics who believe in minimal regulatory intervention on businesses.” 

3. Despite this, Wheeler will likely veer from Pruitt’s leadership approach. “What Pruitt did was remarkable in terms of the scope and speed at which he initiated regulatory-rollback efforts,” Simeone says. “He very quickly moved forward strategies to delay rules, with the ultimate goal of trying to roll them back. But he’s been criticized for sacrificing substance in the pursuit of speed, leading many people to believe his efforts will not ultimately succeed in regulation eliminations.” It would be surprising if Wheeler didn’t pursue the same deregulatory agenda, she says, but he’ll probably do it more slowly and with greater precision. 

4. If the confirmation process stalls until after the midterms, Wheeler might not get confirmed. That only holds true if the Democratic party adds at least two seats in the Senate, Simeone says. “I haven’t looked at the political calculus, but it’s conceivable that, if his confirmation hearings happened after the election and the election changed the distribution of political parties, he might not get confirmed.” 

5. Elections matter. From the outside, Pruitt’s resignation could seem positive for the environment. “Pruitt began rolling back really important environmental rules from the Clean Power Plan to vehicle fuel-economy standards,” Simeone says. “But Wheeler is as bad, if not worse, for the environment. Just because Pruitt is out doesn’t mean people should stop paying attention.” In other words, she says, those who care about the environment should stay engaged and be sure to vote.