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Former Coal Lobbyist Now Free to Shape Coal Regulations as EPA Chief

Union of Concerned Scientists

When he was on the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised to impose new rules to keep lobbyists out of government.  “If I’m elected president, we are going to drain the swamp in Washington, D.C.,” Trump proclaimed.

But he didn’t ban the hiring of lobbyists to his administration – far from it.  On January 28, 2017, he signed an executive order that simply requires any lobbyists hired by his administration to refrain -- for two years -- from participating in discussion of any issue areas on which they lobbied for industry.

This question became relevant last week when EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned amid multiple investigations of his mismanagement and misspending. His replacement as acting EPA Administrator is Andrew Wheeler, a longtime former lobbyist for the coal and energy industries.

According to federal records, Wheeler on May 24 signed a very narrowly tailored ethics pledge that says he promises to “not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter in which I have a financial interest directly.”

Wheeler did not take the broader step and promise to recuse himself from any discussions of policy issues – such as the regulation of air pollution, greenhouse gases and coal ash -- that would financially impact his lobbying firm’s many former clients, including the Murray Energy coal company, XCEL Energy or the uranium mining industry, federal records show.

Stan Meiburg is a former EPA deputy administrator who his well versed in EPA ethics rules and how now works as the Director of Graduate Studies in Sustainability at Wake Forest University.

“The key words in his recusal are ‘particular matters,’” Meiburg said. “And that means an issue that may directly affect either someone who is a particular client of his, or in this case, a client of the firm.  But the thing is, there are so many issues that may affect his clients, but the effect is indirect or very widespread, across an entire industry.”

Wheeler is not pledging to avoid all of those – even though they lie at the core of EPA’s mission.

For example, according to congressional testimony, in March 2017, Wheeler sat in a meeting with his client, coal magnate Bob Murray, as Murray gave a bear hug to Energy Secretary Rick Perry and presented the Trump Administration with a detailed, written action plan for dismantling EPA pollution control rules. As EPA Administrator, Wheeler could still implement his former boss’s deregulatory action plan, despite Wheeler’s narrow recusal promise.

Maryland U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen said Wheeler’s recusal is not enough.

“I think he is the wrong guy for the job,” said Van Hollen. “Because the job of the EPA Administrator is look out for the public health and to protect our environment. And he’s been a paid lobbyist for major special interests that have tried to undermine the laws and regulations that the EPA has in place to protect the public health and our environment.”

The Senate will have to vote to confirm the acting EPA administrator if he is to remain in the job for the long term, and Maryland Senator Ben Cardin also objects to Wheeler’s lobbying past.

“I am concerned about the leadership of the agency, and whether it will follow the traditional role – which has been under both Democratic and Republican administrations – to protect the environment,” Cardin said.  “Or whether it’s just going to be a rubber stamp for President Trump’s anti-environmental policies.  And I have my concerns.”

It is not clear how much power Democratic senators like Cardin and Van Hollen will have over the Republican majority U.S. Senate and Republican EPA Administrator.  But elections are approaching in November, and the balance of power could shift – unleashing political climate change.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.