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A Close Look At The Change In EPA Leadership

The resignation of Scott Pruitt, the controversial former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, means that the agency will be temporarily overseen by Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist.

The resignation of Scott Pruitt, the controversial former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, means that the agency will be temporarily overseen by Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist.

Pruitt submitted his resignation on July 5 after months of ethics scandals plagued his time at the EPA. In his resignation letter, Pruitt cited the “unrelenting attacks on me personally” as his reason for stepping down.

Pruitt Plagued By Scandals

Pruitt was frequently criticized for his long list of controversies, which references luxury travel, nepotism, and other such accusations. He reportedly travelled home to Oklahoma on the taxpayers’ dime, using both a private plane and military jets instead of flying commercial. Both Democratic and Republican officials disapproved of Pruitt’s travel habits, stating that they were inappropriate and unnecessary for the head of the EPA. Documents provided to Congress revealed that Pruitt’s travel expenses totaled about $68,000, including a $20,000 four-day trip to Morocco.

Pruitt also enlisted his aides for personal tasks. He often sent employees to pick up his favorite snacks and treats throughout the workday, and reportedly had aides use their own credit cards to book hotel accommodations for him. According to the Washington Post, Pruitt failed to reimburse EPA executive scheduler Sydney Hupp for a $600 hotel bill she paid for personally.

Among these personal tasks, Pruitt had his aides attempt to find a job for his wife with the Republican Attorneys General Association. Emails the Sierra Club obtained also showed that one of his aides reached out to the CEO of Chick-fil-A about the possibility of his wife becoming a franchise owner.

According to the New York Times, Pruitt had a habit of using his connections to get access to sporting events. He once accepted seats at a University of Kentucky basketball game from a billionaire coal executive, and another time bought tickets to a sold-out Rose Bowl football game from an energy company PR executive.

Pruitt’s superfluous spending seemed to cause the most public outrage. He spent $3 million of taxpayer dollars on an extensive security detail, which was three times bigger than his predecessor’s. Pruitt also had the agency install a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office.

Public Scrutiny, Presidential Praise

Pruitt’s numerous scandals made him widely unpopular in the public eye. According to a poll commissioned in April 2018 by super PAC American Bridge, Pruitt’s job approval rating was merely 29 percent, well below that of President Trump, with 40 percent approval. Responders who knew more about the details of his controversies displayed even more displeasure, and 65 percent of them believed that Trump should have fired him.

Not only was Pruitt disliked by the public, but by politicians as well. Officials said the White House counsel’s office saw him as a constant source of problems and told EPA officials to stop booking Pruitt on TV. Pruitt no longer returned calls from Cabinet Affairs, the White House department that oversees agencies, White House officials said.

Although Pruitt failed to gain the support of White House, his saving grace was his strong relationship with President Trump. Trump ignored Pruitt’s controversial behavior and praised his regulation-trimming with the EPA.

“Within the Agency Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this,” tweeted Trump upon Pruitt’s resignation.

Democrats and environmental groups viewed Pruitt as both a disaster for the environment and as a model of corruption. Pruitt had been a longtime opponent of federal environmental regulations and a denier of climate change. While many green organizations are relieved about Pruitt’s resignation, they also worry about the challenges his replacement will bring.

The Next Head Of Trump’s EPA

Trump appointed Andrew Wheeler to take over Pruitt’s job until the Senate confirms a replacement. That process could take months and potentially stretch past the November midterm elections.

Wheeler worked for four years at the EPA in the 1990s before becoming the top staffer for Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma—the Senate’s biggest challenger of manmade climate change. Wheeler then went to work as a lobbyist for top coal companies, including Murray Energy Corporation—one of the largest coal companies in the U.S.

Different Administrator, Same Policies

Similar to Pruitt, Wheeler has constantly doubted the role of coal, oil, and other sources of greenhouse-gas emissions in climate change.

"I believe man has an impact on the climate, but what is not completely understood is what the impact is," Wheeler told a Senate committee last November.

Although Wheeler and Pruitt express similar environmental views, Wheeler is seen as a Washington insider who avoids the limelight. Unlike Pruitt, Wheeler is considered low-key and built his career by slowly and quietly advancing the interests of the fossil-fuel industry, usually by weakening federal regulations.

For that reason, both supporters and critics of Wheeler say he could prove to be more effective at implementing Trump’s anti-environmental agenda than Pruitt was.

“He will be similar to Pruitt in terms of agenda—he understands the Trump administration and will carry out the agenda,” said Matthew Dempsey, a former colleague of Wheeler. “But he’s been around Washington a long time. He knows how D.C. works and he does things by the book.”

Looking To The Future

In his new role, Wheeler is expected to keep in line with Trump administration policies, and could be an effective ally for Trump. He will likely approach his work with the same ideology as Pruitt, but without the pretension and ethical scandals.

Republicans are pleased with Wheeler’s appointment and believe that he is well-qualified, having worked at the agency early in his career. Before becoming a lobbyist, he was also a top aide at the Senate Environment Committee where he fought air pollution regulations and opposed efforts to address climate change.

Trump also expressed his satisfaction with Wheeler, tweeting that he has “no doubt that Andy will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda. We have made tremendous progress and the future of the EPA is very bright!”

Environmental advocates, however, fear that Wheeler’s clean slate may give him an opportunity to roll back regulation more effectively and covertly. Pruitt’s notoriety provided environmental groups with fuel to rally in opposition to him and attracted constant negative media attention. Wheeler, on the other hand, is far more likely to pursue Trump’s agenda with the EPA no longer in the spotlight. 

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