As EPA chief, Wheeler could prove a bigger foe to clean-air advocates

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EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler

President Trump’s new pick as EPA Administrator may be more effective at rolling back environmental progress than his scandal-plagued predecessor.

On Friday, Trump announced that he plans to formally nominate Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler as EPA Administrator to replace Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general, who was known for his record of suing the EPA 13 times.

Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal industry, has served as acting administrator since July, and since then has put forward proposals to roll back two signature Obama-era programs designed to limit climate change.

Less than two months into his tenure, Wheeler rolled out a proposal to weaken automotive fuel-economy and emissions standards and proposed to replace President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which would have required coal-fired power plants to reduce their emissions, with one that favors coal over cleaner power sources.

Pruitt, who resigned in July following 16 separate ethics investigations, had announced his intention to roll back both programs, but spent more time defending himself against ethical probes and did not make any such moves in the 18 months he served.

Without those distractions, Wheeler made quick work of unwinding the EPA’s earlier efforts.

In addition to the two proposals, Wheeler also eliminated the EPA’s Office of the Science Advisor and disbanded two boards of pollution scientists.

Environmentalists and state regulators have been quick to push back against the Wheeler’s proposals.

In conjunction with 16 other states, California has sued the EPA over its proposal to relax rising emissions and fuel economy standards, and the state’s air regulators say they will continue to require cars to meet stricter previously agreed standards through 2025 and will continue to require increasing numbers of electric and fuel-cell cars to be sold in the state. The same EPA proposal laid out plans for the NHTSA to sue California to end its right to follow its own standards.

California Air Resources Board chair Mary Nichols (via Twitter)

California Air Resources Board chair Mary Nichols (via Twitter)

The news hasn’t been all bad from an environmental standpoint: During Wheeler’s term so far, the EPA has announced that carbon-dioxide emissions actually fell in 2017, as a result of increased wind and solar power generation and reduced coal. And last week Wheeler announced plans to propose stricter pollution limits on heavy trucks.

Both are somewhat pyrrhic victories, however. The CO2 reductions came largely because of economic forces making coal more expensive and reducing the price of power from natural gas and renewables, And the agency doesn’t plan to release the actual proposal to reduce truck emissions until 2020. 

With his formal nomination to head the EPA, Wheeler will face Senate confirmation proceedings—which, may not be as much a foregone conclusion as Wheeler’s environmental record at this point. 

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