To boot, Democrats have already spent political capital to upend more egregious environmental nominations. Those include Hartnett-White―who credited coal with abolishing slavery and suggested increased carbon dioxide emissions were good for the planet―and Michael Dourson, whose consultancy was described in 2014 by InsideClimate News as the “one-stop science shop” favored by the chemical and tobacco industries seeking affirmative research. Pruitt picked Dourson to lead the EPA’s chemical safety division, but withdraw the nomination in December after two Republican senators said they would not vote for him.
Democrats seem more at ease with Wheeler’s nomination. No Democrat raised concerns about Wheeler last week during Pruitt’s first Senate hearing since taking office.
Yet the choice of Wheeler is itself a naked gift to the coal industry, which has yielded outsized influence over the Trump White House. Wheeler lobbied on behalf of coal mining giant Murray Energy as recently as last year, disclosure filings show.
The company’s bombastic chief executive, Bob Murray, already has played a major role in shaping Trump administration energy and environmental policies. Last month, Murray’s so-called “action plan,” became public. The proposals include a federal bailout of coal-fired plants, repeal of the Clean Power Plan and reopening of the 2009 EPA “endangerment finding” that determined carbon dioxide pollution poses a risk to public health.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in a break with the White House, rejected the bailout plan. Pruitt announced his repeal of the Clean Power Plan, a suite of rules to reduce emissions from power plants, in October. But the administration’s decision on the so-called endangerment finding is up in the air. Despite calls from ardent climate-change deniers to reopen the finding, overturning the conclusion would require disproving the science behind human-caused climate change in court―an extremely unlikely prospect. Pruitt said last week that he had not yet decided whether to challenge the finding.
Wheeler could be the man to lead that assault. In October, Pruitt railed against the endangerment finding for citing the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In what appeared to be a dog whistle to nationalists, he claimed the endangerment finding “represents, and this is the first time in history this has ever occurred, this agency took work product of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and adopted it, transferred it to this agency and used that as the basis, underpinnings, of the endangerment finding.”
In reality, the technical support document on the endangerment finding references more than 100 published scientific studies and cites peer-reviewed syntheses of climate research by the White House’s Global Change Research Program, the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the U.N.’s IPCC.
But the criticism echoes Wheeler’s own suggestions. In March 2010, he accused the IPCC of blurring “the lines between science and advocacy” and functioning “more as a political body than a scientific body.” He suggested the EPA could “reconsider its endangerment finding without almost exclusively relying upon the IPCC,” according to remarks posted to his website.
“I believe that man has an impact on the climate, but what’s not completely understood is what the impact is,” Wheeler said at his confirmation hearing when aggressively questioned about the findings of the federal government’s latest climate report.
Wheeler’s Senate career gives pause to environmentalists, too. Inhofe, who serves on the Senate panel voting on his nomination, is one of the most ardent climate-change deniers in Congress. In 2015, the Oklahoma Republican brought a snowball to the Senate floor in a comically flamboyant attempt to prove climate change is a hoax. Inhofe is a close ally of Pruitt, who is said to be considering a bid for his seat when the 83-year-old senator retires.
“Andrew Wheeler’s nomination is very much in keeping with the Trump administration’s agenda of fossil fuel exploitation and climate inaction,” Michael Mann, a climatologist at Penn State University and co-author of a book on climate change denialism, told HuffPost. “The environmental community’s celebration of the failed nomination of climate-change denier Kathleen Hartnett-White to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality may be short-lived.”