Andrew Wheeler: The New EPA Head Driving Trump’s Dangerous Climate Plan

MARIE SWAIN:  While Scott Pruitt’s flashy scandals and resulting resignation grabbed headlines around the nation this past month, the new acting director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has so far been comparably inconspicuous. However, though little known, Andrew Wheeler now wields considerable power, and the public ought to monitor his actions just as carefully as his predecessor.

Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist, worked on Capitol Hill for Senator James Inhofe, a climate change denier, and previously served as vice president of the Washington Coal Club. With that kind of background, it should be no surprise that Wheeler shares the same environmental ideology as Pruitt—and is arguably more dangerous.

Many credit Wheeler’s more than 20 years in Washington for his savvy in operating a government agency and success pushing forward anti-environment policies. Though he has yet to pursue deregulation at the same breakneck speed as Pruitt, his knowledge of both D.C. and the legal system could allow him to avoid the obstacles that his predecessor faced, especially in the courts.

Proof of Wheeler’s political proficiency can already be seen. Though only having been on the job for barely more than a month, Wheeler has taken significant steps to reverse key environmental protection policies made under the Obama administration. Most critically, the EPA, joined by allies at the Transportation Department, is set to rollback auto emission standards, allowing less efficient vehicles to stay on the road longer. Under the previous rules, automakers would be mandated to almost double the fuel efficiency of cars by 2025, producing vehicles that run at roughly 50 miles per gallon. However, the proposed plan would only require new cars to average 35 miles per gallon by 2020, with no further conditions for future years. In addition, it would oblige states that set stricter pollution standards for themselves, like California, to follow the more lenient federal rules.

However, this proposition has not been received with much support, even by automakers. Though the title of Wheeler’s op-ed in The Wall Street Journal this month claims the plan will “Make Cars Great Again,” car manufacturers fear it could set up a battle in the courts that could last for years. It could potentially cause the U.S. auto market to be divided in two—between states that comply with the new rules and states like California and a dozen others that promise to sue to keep cleaner cars on their streets. As such, the risk of regulatory uncertainty has led automakers to team up with environmentalists to oppose the administration’s policy implementation, though the latter is more focused on curbing tailpipe pollution, emissions that escalate global warming.

While Wheeler may only serve as EPA head while Trump lives in the White House (although the Trump turnover rate could shorten his tenure), the next two years (and potentially six) could have permanent effects on the environment. Decisions made under this administration could be reversed by the next president, but the damage will have already been done. Deregulation policies such as the fuel efficiency plan just pushed forward ignore the effects of carbon pollution on the environment.

While the EPA continues to advocate for federal policies that support indifference towards increasing greenhouse gas emissions, we would be wise to remember that climate change impacts not only the U.S. but the whole globe. Disregarding the impact of pollution worsens climate change, and leads to even more terrible natural disasters, such as the deadly Carr Fire destroying thousands of acres in California right now. If we don’t step up to the plate and recognize our own contribution to this phenomenon, and even continue to blatantly ignore the effects of our carbon emissions, we could all pay for it dearly—both today and years to come.

Max Magid