Wheeler Addresses EPA Employees

Agency Continues to Work on Cooperative Federalism, Improving Permits System

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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New EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler addressed agency employees on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of EPA)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Doors at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., were open to the press on Wednesday, as new Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler addressed agency employees about the future of the EPA.

While the gesture by Wheeler may signal a change from the leadership of Scott Pruitt and his closed-to-the-media style, so far, there is little indication the EPA will change its current deregulation and cooperative federalism pursuit.

In a 20-minute speech, Wheeler pointed to a need to continue the work Pruitt did in reaching out to states and other industry stakeholders about EPA's work. That has included the rewrite of the waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. Wheeler did not take questions following his speech.

When Pruitt resigned, ethanol and agriculture groups, along with Midwest lawmakers, celebrated because of the battles they've faced on the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) in the past 17 months.

During his speech, Wheeler made no mention of the RFS or the WOTUS rewrite. He did, however, say the agency under his leadership will continue "restoring the rule of law and reigning in regulatory overreach."

Wheeler said the EPA needs to continue to provide certainty to the states by continuing to work cooperatively, certainty for permitting programs and to improve risk communications in the event of environmental disasters.

"The goal is to make all permitting decisions up or down in six months," Wheeler said. That includes the Clean Water Act and other permits. "I'm not advocating for letting people off the hook or eliminating fines. I just want timely decisions."

EPA took a lot of heat for the way it handled the Gold King Mine disaster in Colorado and the drinking water disaster in Flint, Michigan, in recent years.

"EPA owes it to the American public to know the risks they face in their daily lives," Wheeler said.

When Wheeler was named as acting administrator, many media outlets focused on his lobbying work on behalf of a single coal company, Murray Energy. According to information from EPA, however, Wheeler did not lobby EPA on the company's behalf.

"I had a number of clients but if you read in the press, I only had one," he told EPA employees. "But I actually had over 20 clients; a wide range of clients. Companies, trade associations, some private sector clients, some NGOs (non-governmental organizations), I worked for an air quality management district in California. And I did work for a coal company, and I'm not at all ashamed of the work I did for the coal company. I know in the press it has been used by some people in a derogatory manner. But I'm actually proud of the work I did."

In particular, Wheeler said the No. 1 issue he worked on was the Miners Protection Act. The legislation shored up pension and health care benefits for United Mine Workers retirees.

WHEELER ON RFS

Wheeler has said little publicly about where he stands on issues important to agriculture, including the RFS.

He was asked about the RFS during a Nov. 8, 2017, hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

"The RFS is the law of the land, and I fully support the program," he said during that hearing. "I have not had specific conversation with the president on this issue, but from all accounts, he fully supports the program and the intent of the program, and I support both the law and the intent of the RFS program."

Wheeler was also asked about the role of rural states in environmental stewardship.

"I have an absolute respect for rural America," he told the committee.

"In my first year working for Sen. (James) Inhofe (R-Okla.), I went out to Oklahoma and put 1,000 miles on a rental car driving all over the state and a lot of small communities. I understand the problems they face. I understand the need for EPA to work with the states, through the regions with the states and the local communities to make sure everyone understands what the environmental priorities are, what the environmental requirements are, and to work with people to make sure we can have a clean and safe environment, protect the public health and environment, and have job security and economic growth.

"I would say everyone I met in rural areas of our country cared deeply about the environment where they live. In fact, they are some of the best stewards of the environment we have. Again, working with Administrator Pruitt on his cooperative federalism, working with the states, working with the local governments, I think is vital to going forward and making sure that everyone understands the need to protect the environment and what are the requirements from the EPA so we can work together."

WHEELER BACKGROUND

Wheeler began his career at the EPA in the 1990s, as a special assistant in the agency's pollution prevention and toxics office.

On April 12, 2018, Wheeler was confirmed by the Senate as deputy administrator of the EPA. Prior to that confirmation, Wheeler was a principal and team leader for the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels, where he practiced until 2009.

During that time, he did consulting work for Growth Energy, Archer Daniels Midland, General Mills, and lobbied for the likes of Sargento Foods, Underwriters Laboratory, as well as for a variety of energy and other companies.

Prior to his lobbying work, Wheeler was the majority staff director and chief counsel, and minority staff director of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) for six years. Most notably, Wheeler worked for Inhofe, who is a vocal critic of the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Prior to his work with the Senate EPW Committee, the Hamilton, Ohio, native served in a similar capacity for six years for the Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate Change, Wetlands and Nuclear Safety. Wheeler has a law degree from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, a master's degree in business administration from George Mason University, and he completed his undergraduate work in English and biology at Case Western Reserve University.

Inhofe said in a statement following Pruitt's resignation that, "Andrew Wheeler is the perfect choice to serve as acting administrator. Andrew worked for me for 14 years, has an impeccable reputation and has the experience to be a strong leader at the EPA. I have no doubt and complete confidence he will continue the important deregulatory work that Scott Pruitt started while being a good steward of the environment."

Among the legislation Wheeler was involved in during his time with the Senate were the two RFS bills -- the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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Todd Neeley