Scott Pruitt resigned as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday after a series of ethics scandals that exposed, among other things, questionable relationships with some of Washington’s elite energy lobbyists and powerful tycoons.
Pruitt’s interim replacement, deputy EPA administrator and former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, meanwhile, steps into his new role with long and lucrative ties to the energy and chemical industries. The appointment indicates that President Donald Trump’s EPA will maintain its cozy relationship with same corporations it is charged with regulating.
The EPA has argued that there is distance between Wheeler and his ex-clients. Regarding Wheeler’s past lobbying work, agency spokeswoman Kelsi Daniels said in a statement "as stated in his May 24, 2018 recusal statement, the Deputy Administrator is recused from specific party matters involving former clients until April 28, 2020."
As a lobbyist for Faegre Baker Daniels, Wheeler’s most lucrative client was Murray Energy Corporation, one of the largest coal companies in the U.S. It is run by CEO Robert Murray, who has ties to the president -- including donations to Trump’s 2016 campaign.
In 2013, Murray Energy paid Faegre Baker Daniels $300,000 after Wheeler and his team lobbied members of Congress for what’s described in their quarterly disclosure forms as “general energy and environmental issues," according to disclosure forms reviewed by CNBC.
Murray has called on Trump to arrange an emergency bailout to keep open unprofitable coal plants. In March 2017, he met with Energy Secretary Rick Perry to propose regulatory changes to the coal industry.
Murray’s connections to the Trump administration are also clear through his campaign contributions during the 2016 presidential election. He gave $10,000 to the Trump Victory committee, a joint fundraising group for the campaign and the Republican National Committee. He also shelled out $2,700 directly to Trump’s campaign.
He has yet to donate Trump’s re-election efforts.
Murray, in a statement first given to CNBC, praised Pruitt as "very qualified" and said that he "worked diligently to protect our environment, while concomitantly providing regulatory certainty for our Nation’s economy." As for Wheeler, though, the coal baron said he hasn’t had any contact with the official since he became Pruitt's deputy. Murray declined to comment further on Wheeler’s appointment.
Wheeler also lobbied for Celanese Corporation, a chemical industry giant.
Ranked in 2012 as a Fortune 500 company, Celanese paid approximately $241,000 from 2011 through 2012 for Wheeler’s services, according to lobbying disclosure forms.
The reports show that Wheeler, similar to his work with Murray Energy, lobbied members of Congress, only this time for “chemical issues.”
Celanese CEO Mark Rohr gave $2,700 to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, but this year he has contributed $5,000 to the McConnell for Majority Leader Committee, a joint fundraising organization that supports Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Kentucky Republican Party, Federal Election Commission records show.
Rohr backed McConnell’s campaign directly through the McConnell Senate Committee.
Wheeler also worked with Energy Fuels Resources Inc., a leading U.S. based uranium producer. In 2016 it was considered the second largest supplier of uranium in the country and was moving up the ranks to become number one throughout the following year.
Starting in April 2017, Wheeler’s firm was paid $20,000 for two quarters of work. Each time they met with congressional lawmakers they discussed “general energy issues related to uranium mining and milling.”
Wheeler’s industry ties provide a clear sign that the Trump administration will continue to push policy that is favorable to the energy industry, rankling environmentalists and scientists seeking to curb climate change and boost cleaner energy alternatives.
On Friday, the Sierra Club, a prominent environmentalist organization, released a statement denouncing Wheeler and cited his past experience as a lobbyist as to why he should not be in charge of the EPA.
“A coal lobbyist dogged by ethical questions like Andrew Wheeler is not the person to (lead EPA). Senators must confirm a nominee who will hold the health and safety of American families in higher regard than the profits of big polluters," said Michael Brune, the executive director of the group.
Democratic lawmakers have already started calling Trump's choice to replace Pruitt with Wheeler as an attempt to dismantle the EPA.
"Scott Pruitt’s acting replacement, Andrew Wheeler, is a former coal lobbyist and climate-change denier," Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., tweeted on Friday. "The attempt to dismantle the EPA from the inside continues."
The former lobbyist will likely be a reliable ally in Trump’s bid to deregulate the energy industry and his desire to “end the war on coal.” Trump often notes that he “saved the coal industry,” using it as a rallying cry for his supporters in states where coal mining jobs are disappearing.
He has consistently rolled back Obama-era regulations, including the proposed Clean Power Plan which was meant to take on global warming.
Recently, the Trump administration drafted a memo calling for the Energy Department to look into how to best to curb job losses at coal and nuclear plants.
However, nonprofit independent research group Resources for the Future says that for every 4.5 mining jobs saved by Trump’s policies, one American would die from the surge in air pollution associated with an increase in fossil fuels.
The study also found that the drafted policy would add at least 790 coal mining jobs each year.