The Environmental Protection Agency’s new boss, Andrew Wheeler, has unlocked the entrance to the third-floor administrator’s suite — which had been closed tight during the tenure of his predecessor, Scott Pruitt. Wheeler, who started Monday after Pruitt’s resignation, has also reduced his security detail and provided faster public updates to his daily schedule of events.
And Wednesday, in remarks to agency employees, Wheeler — who spent four years himself as an EPA staff member in the 1990s — told them he wants their advice. That is a stark difference from Pruitt, who was known to be deeply suspicious of the agency’s career staff.
“When it comes to leadership, you can’t lead unless you listen,” Wheeler told a room of about 200 employees Wednesday.
Even as he has shown no sign of veering from Pruitt’s course on environmental policy, Wheeler so far appears to be ushering in a change in style. His agency’s interactions with the public, and its own employees, seem to be returning to a posture more consistent with past Republican and Democratic administrations after Pruitt’s contentious and scandal-plagued tenure.
For example, the agency has returned to issuing regular notices of the administrator’s public appearances and upcoming policy announcements, and it has assured journalists that not only conservative news media will be invited to these events. The agency also intends to hold policy briefings to explain changes it is rolling out on matters like the Clean Power Plan, President Barack Obama’s signature climate change regulation that Wheeler will seek to rewrite, and other new policies.
The drive to roll back Obama-era clean air and clean water regulations has not changed under Wheeler, nor has his commitment, he said, to try to give states more power to handle enforcement matters, as Pruitt had championed.
For example, the agency made clear Wednesday it does not intend to reverse an order made late Friday — Pruitt’s final day — that created a loophole for superpolluting trucks, a move that environmental groups called illegal and will almost certainly challenge in court.
The move — which will allow a significant expansion of the manufacturing of trucks that produce up to 55 times as much air pollution as trucks with modern emissions controls — will “avoid undue hardship to members of the regulated community,” Molly Block, an EPA spokeswoman, said Wednesday in a statement.
But Wheeler, in his remarks Wednesday from a room named after Rachel Carson, a marine biologist who helped start the modern environmental movement in the United States 56 years ago with her book “Silent Spring,” made clear he realizes that he has to overcome some preconceptions about his background. He worked for the past nine years as a lobbyist whose clients included Murray Energy, a coal company, with a long list of matters pending before the EPA.
As his remarks were broadcast live on the internet and transmitted to agency regional offices around the country, Wheeler told EPA employees that he is proud of the work he did on behalf of Murray Energy. His grandfather, Wheeler said, was a coal miner during the Great Depression, and one of the issues he worked on for Murray, he said, was a bill intended to ensure that retired miners received health care benefits.
“I did work for a coal company, and I’m not at all ashamed of the work I did,” Wheeler said. “As employees of the agency, you need to know that about me.”
John Konkus, an EPA spokesman, said in a statement said Wheeler did not lobby the agency when he worked for Murray Energy and has not lobbied it at all in the past two years.
Wheeler, who had served as the agency’s deputy administrator since April, also took on the other elephant in the room: the abrupt departure of Pruitt amid a crush of ethics scandals regarding his spending, management of the agency and use of government resources.
Noting that he has been through agency transitions before, Wheeler said, “I want you to know I understand how stressful that can be.”
He pledged to consult the agency’s staff on policy changes — a promise that agency employees said they would be carefully watching.
“My instinct will be to defend your work, and I will seek the facts from you before drawing conclusions,” Wheeler said.
One of the starkest signs of the shift is the continued departure of some of Pruitt’s top aides, such as Jahan Wilcox, who is returning to Republican Party politics and who earned a reputation for his confrontational approach to interacting with the news media, calling one reporter for The Atlantic “a piece of trash” and threatening to call the police after reporters declined to leave an event Pruitt was at in North Dakota.
Tamue Gibson, a biologist who has worked at the EPA for 16 years, said she felt Wheeler’s speech was a drastic improvement from Pruitt’s and said she left encouraged by his attitude toward the agency and its work.
“He understands our role as being vital to the world,” she said. “We’re very optimistic.”
Not everyone was impressed. Denise Morrison, the head of the federal employees union, called Wheeler’s remarks “a superficial attempt to plug the leaks and quell the dissent.”
William Reilly, a former administrator of the EPA under President George Bush, said he thought Wheeler could be an effective leader as long as he continued to distinguish himself from his predecessor.
“He really needs to show that ‘I am not Pruitt. I am not going to embarrass you by my personal behavior. You may not like some of the decisions that I make, but they will be made responsibly and with respect for process,'” Reilly said. “I think if he does that, he can probably be successful.”