New EPA head has long history of ties to mining interests

Watchdog groups worry Andrew Wheeler will advance an agenda of deregulation.

 

Andrew Wheeler, a former coal and uranium mining lobbyist, has been named the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, after the abrupt resignation of Scott Pruitt. Pruitt announced his decision on Thursday, amid a series of ethics investigations into his improper use of taxpayer money and penchant for using employees to conduct personal errands.

Wheeler has made a career out of representing fossil fuel interests and rolling back environmental regulations. His relationships with senior officials from the Department of Interior and the Department of Energy, his lobbying background and deep ties to polluting industries have some people worried that his influence could extend beyond the parameters of the EPA. 

“The extent to which Andrew Wheeler knows how all of these agencies work and did his best to influence all of these agencies prior to joining the EPA is a huge concern,” said Aaron Weiss, a spokesman for the Center for Western Priorities, a nonprofit focused on conservation and energy policy.

Andrew Wheeler is the new acting chief administrator of the EPA, following the resignation of Scott Pruitt. Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist for Murray Energy and aide to Republican Sen. James Inhofe, a fossil fuels advocate.
Environmental Protection Agency

Wheeler’s positions follow those of other members of the Trump administration, who downplay the need for climate action and environmental regulation. During his time working under Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a prominent climate change denialist, Wheeler worked on a bill called the Clear Skies Act. Had it passed, it would have stripped protections from the Clean Air Act. Pruitt also worked to roll back the policy during his tenure at the EPA.

Prior to being named EPA deputy administrator in April, Wheeler spent several months talking to top officials from the Department of the Interior about the energy and mineral resources located inside the original Bears Ears National Monument boundary on behalf of Energy Fuels Resources, a uranium mining company. The Washington Post reported that the company sent a letter to the DOI nine months before the shrinking of Bears Ears requesting that the monument be trimmed to accommodate areas with vanadium and uranium deposits, confirming suspicions that the motive for altering the monument was driven in part by mining interests. 

The company also owns White Mesa Mill, the only operating uranium mill in the country, and has several mining claims near the Grand Canyon — where uranium mining is under a 20-year ban. Environmentalists fear that his involvement with such a sprawling uranium power will bleed into his work and priorities at the EPA. It wasn’t very long ago that he stopped his work on behalf of Energy Fuels, “and now hell have regulatory power over the industry that he worked for,” said Amber Reimondo, energy program director for the Grand Canyon Trust.

Wheeler also has deep ties to the West’s coal industry, working as a lobbyist for Murray Energy, the largest coal mining company in the country. The company operates 13 mines, including three in Utah’s Uintah Basin. In March of 2017, Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray and Wheeler, who was then a lobbyist, made headlines when they held a meeting with Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry to discuss a plan to revive the U.S. coal industry.

Around the same time, Murray also authored a letter to Vice President Mike Pence detailing a wish list of actions he wished to see prioritized under the current administration, including slashing the EPA’s staff in half and eliminating the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era proposal that limited pollution and prepared the country for a transition to renewable energy. Under the direction of Pruitt, the EPA has begun to implement some of these goals, including drafting a replacement to the Clean Power Plan. In addition, the department has seen staffing levels drop by over 700 people, putting the agency at the lowest employment numbers it’s had in 30 years.

Environmentalists fear that Wheeler will continue that deregulatory agenda, but with less public scrutiny than his scandal-plagued predecessor. He has proven his ability already, having lobbied outside of the public process for the Bears Ears rescindment, said Reimondo. Now, Wheeler may use those same workarounds and relationships with officials and industry executives during his time at the agency, Weiss said. “When you have someone like Andrew Wheeler able to make those phone calls, it is going to be almost impossible for the American people to have any oversight at the EPA.” 

Jessica Kutz is an Editorial Fellow at High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WESTERN WATER PROJECT MANAGER
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online: https://www.nwf.org/about-us/careers
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIV
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • SAN JUAN BASIN ENERGY CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is seeking a full-time San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer located in Farmington, New Mexico. The San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer focuses...
  • WILDLIFE PROGRAM MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) is looking for a passionate, experienced, and motivated Wildlife Program Manager to lead campaigns to protect and enhance wildlife and...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes."- Billings Gazette Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, &...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER AND MEMBERSHIP COORDINATOR
    Western Colorado Alliance is hiring for 4 positions, 2 Full Time Community Organizers, 1 Part Time Community Organizer and a Part Time Membership Coordinator. For...
  • BUSINESS OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    Thorne Nature Experience is looking for a Business Operations Director who will work in partnership with the Executive Director and Thorne's Directors and Managers to...