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New EPA Chief Andrew Wheeler, Former Coal Lobbyist, Aims to Continue to Dismantle EPA from Inside

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Following Scott Pruitt’s resignation, EPA Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler will become the agency’s acting administrator. Wheeler is a former lobbyist for Murray Energy, the nation’s largest underground coal mining company. He’s also the former chief of staff for Oklahoma Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, who is known as the most notorious climate-denying lawmaker in Washington. In one of his most famous stunts, Inhofe brought a snowball onto the Senate floor in 2015 in order to prove that global warming was a hoax.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us to Emily Atkin of The New Republic. Emily, first, your response to Scott Pruitt being out? And talk about the scandals that some say took him out. Others say the biggest scandal, of course, is the issue that Kristin Mink is just raising, and that’s the rollback of environmental policies like we’ve never seen in decades.

EMILY ATKIN: I mean, every single one of your guests so far has been correct. Scott Pruitt’s policies are the—were always the biggest scandal, and they’ll continue to be, because Scott Pruitt’s policies at the EPA, rolling back climate change regulations, clean air, clean water regulations, those are the policies of the Republican Party in general. That’s why Scott Pruitt was able to survive his scandals for so long, is because when Republicans saw what he was doing or what he was attempting to do, they said, “Well, I like that. I just don’t like this weird fountain pen, $1,500-on-12-fountain-pen thing.”

And my reaction to Scott Pruitt getting fired yesterday was sort of like, “What?” because, I mean, at a certain point, Scott Pruitt, to me and, I think, a lot of other reporters and people who closely follow this—Scott Pruitt, at a certain point, became the sore that was just never going to heal. I mean, there’s one scandal, right? There’s two scandals. There’s three scandals. At a certain point, there’s 10 scandals, and he’s still not getting fired. CNN put together a list of the mounting scandals, Scott Pruitt controversies. There’s 29 bullet points on that, on that list. So, at a certain point, you just think to yourself, “This isn’t going to happen. Scott Pruitt is going to be the EPA administrator forever.” So, I was met with a bit of shock, to be honest.

But something that hasn’t been mentioned yet—it’s actually just recently come out this morning—is that there have been some sources within the EPA talking to both, you know, liberal and conservative outlets, saying that there actually might have been a scandal that broke the camel’s back, which was what came out yesterday about Scott Pruitt—what also came out over the weekend—about Scott Pruitt changing his public schedule and strategically taking things off of his schedule, so that if you FOIAed things, you know, if you filed a public records request, or if you tried to look at what he was doing, there would be certain things that you just couldn’t find, because those things looked bad—for example, a meeting with a former Vatican official, climate-denying Vatican official, who was later accused of sexual abuse against minors. And that was—that’s a potential violation of the Federal Records Act that can result in a felony conviction and potentially land Pruitt in jail.

I mean, some of these are—you know, there’s the $50-a-night condo. There’s the—you know, he spent $1,500 on 12 fountain pens. And, you know, he wanted his bodyguard to get him some lotion. That’s what made him viral, sort of like a viral, ridiculous figure. But some of these scandals are actually pretty important and have important consequences. They have implications that might see him breaking the law. So, there’s a lot going on.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, I think what’s very clear, especially in this last week, of hiding who he met with on a different schedule, and ultimately, I think, The New York Times, right before the tweet that he had resigned came out, the—noting that one of his aides was fired because she didn’t want to do this, keep this, that it was actually illegal to keep these two separate schedules, what is shown to the public and who he was actually meeting with. And, of course, those issues are around industry representatives versus, you know, the public.

But I wanted to read part of the resignation letter of Pruitt. He ended the letter to President Trump with these words: “My desire in service to you has always been to bless you as you make important decisions for the American people. I believe you are serving as President today because of God’s providence. I believe that same providence brought me into your service. I pray as I have served you that I have blessed you and enabled you to effectively lead the American people. Thank you again Mr. President for the honor of serving you and I wish you Godspeed in all that you put your hand to. Your Faithful Friend, Scott Pruitt.”

Emily Atkin, can you talk about this? Where has he talked about serving the public? He says he is serving Donald Trump, which will take us to the next point, which is who is replacing him, perhaps a person who, at this point, doesn’t have that level of scandal, but continues the policy, Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist.

EMILY ATKIN: This was one of Scott Pruitt’s failings, I think, as a public servant, obviously, the letter that you just read. There is no mention of serving the American public. And I think that that idea gets lost a lot in the Trump administration. He’s saying he’s serving a president. It almost sounds creepy, in a way. That’s not his job. And I think that’s what Mustafa Ali was saying earlier. His job as the EPA administrator is to serve the American people, is to protect American public health from pollutants, from water pollutants, from air pollutants. And there is no mention of that in his resignation letter.

There’s also no mention of his scandals in his resignation letter. And that’s another problem of Scott Pruitt and why I think, you know, you never saw a lot of Republicans come to his defense, is because Scott Pruitt never came to his own defense. He had one interview on Fox News where he attempted to defend himself from some of these scandals. It didn’t go well. He got challenged by people he thought were going to be nice to him, and they weren’t nice to him. And so he largely kept himself out of the spotlight.

So now we have Andrew Wheeler coming in to be the acting administrator. Andrew Wheeler is going to pursue the same policy agenda that Pruitt—that Pruitt, you know, pursued. And I think it’s sort of—Pruitt was a blessing in disguise for people in the environmental movement, because he was so ridiculous. Because he said such ridiculous things all the time, people actually started to care about the environmental deregulatory process. Scott Pruitt was—you know, he was a symbol of what was happening. And now, with somebody who’s a little more low-key, who’s a little more boring, to be honest—I mean, these policies aren’t sexy to talk about. You want to talk about methane leaks from oil and gas operations. You want to talk about the mechanics of scientific research and how we use it to fight air pollution. You talked about Steve Milloy. I mean, he’s a former tobacco lobbyist. These scientific policies are the same ones that the tobacco industry was pushing when they wanted to not be liable for the harm they were causing to humans’ health. But Wheeler is going to be pushing those same things, and he’s not going to attract the same zhoosh that Scott Pruitt did.

AMY GOODMAN: The new EPA chief, Andrew Wheeler, worked for nearly a decade on behalf of fossil fuel companies, including the coal company Murray Energy, and as a senior adviser to Republican Senator James Inhofe, the prominent climate change denier. I want to go to Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma speaking from the floor of the Senate in February of 2015, the day he infamously brought in that snowball in an attempt to disprove global warming.

SEN. JAMES INHOFE: In case we have forgotten, because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record, I ask the chair, “You know what this is?” It’s a snowball, and that’s just from outside here. So it’s very, very cold out, very unseasonal. So, here, Mr. President, catch this.

AMY GOODMAN: And he throws the snowball. That’s Senator Inhofe, Emily Atkin. Your final response on this? And here you have a man who has not been approved by the Senate. Can he, Andrew Murray [sic], the former chief of staff of Inhofe—Andrew Wheeler, of Murray coal, the former chief of staff of Inhofe, can he actually stay in office to the end of Trump’s term without being approved, as an interim, as an acting?

EMILY ATKIN: Absolutely, because he’s already been confirmed by the Senate to be the deputy administrator. So, whether or not he gets confirmed, he still has basically all the powers of the administrator.

One thing that I would say that people should be looking at now, I think that people should use Scott Pruitt and the attention that he drew to himself with his viral, weird scandals—lotions, mattresses, first-class flights—take the attention from that and put it back on those policies that Andrew Wheeler now has the full capacity to put forward as the EPA administrator. And the first one that I would look at is climate change regulation. The day that Scott Pruitt resigned, The New York Times published a story saying that the EPA is preparing to put out its replacement for the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s signature climate change regulation to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants. Andrew Wheeler, that’s his bread and butter. He’s been wanting to weaken or repeal that regulation for a long time. And Andrew Wheeler has also, you know, expressed interest in trying to roll back one of the most important Supreme Court case rulings in climate change law at all, which is the law that says that carbon dioxide must be regulated as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. So that’s something that I think we should be watching, because it’s going to have real, dangerous, long-term implications for the American people, if that does come to pass.

AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us back to Mustafa Ali and Chris Zarba. Mustafa, you were at the EPA for what? Some two dozen years, 24 years.


AMY GOODMAN: Chris Zarba, you were there for 38 years. In this year and a half, how has the EPA changed, compared to what it was before? Let’s begin with Chris Zarba.

CHRIS ZARBA: I think at the top of the list, I would see the agency disengaging with science. The agency, in the entire time I was there, embraced science. It was—we used science to identify where the risks were to human health and the environment, and used that as a basis for going forward. And there seems to be a broad walking away from science. There’s very little work now in the pipeline for the Science Advisory Board to do. We usually have 20, 25 items in the pipeline. Right now I think there’s virtually nothing. So, it’s obvious that the agency isn’t going to be going forward with science.

And there seems to be some questioning of just some basics in science. I mean, Administrator Pruitt questioned whether evolution was—he thought it was just a theory. We have other Americans that actually believe the Earth is flat. And some Americans believe that dinosaurs and humans walked the Earth at the same time. And all three of those things are proven in science one way or the other. And I think, walking away from it, it lets people that want to do something—the science tells you what’s important and what needs to be addressed. And if those issues get in the way, then what you do is you sideline science.

And I think that gets back to the—Steve Milloy. So, Steve Milloy was a—he worked for—an attorney for the tobacco industry in the '90s. And he was part of the team that crafted the illusion that the data was inconclusive as to whether cigarettes are addictive and bad to your health. And they did that to keep tobacco sales up. And since that time, the tobacco—the CEOs of the tobacco industry, you know, they testified in front of Congress. They have since been found criminally liable, and billions of dollars' fines have been put against them. And we’ve all seen the recent commercials on TV where people who have suffered quite significantly from smoking cigarettes are there trying to tell people to be careful and avoid cigarette smoke whenever possible. Well, that same Steve Milloy was part of the EPA effort to craft this transparency in regulatory science. It’s the same strategy, is to sideline the science so that we can do what we want. And to use somebody like Steve Milloy, who really led the charge with the tobacco industry and now is leading EPA on this transparency in regulatory science, is just—it defies belief.

AMY GOODMAN: Mustafa Ali, some people have compared Andrew Wheeler to Vice President Pence, and Scott Pruitt to President Trump—President Trump with all of the scandal and the tweets and outrageousness, and then the one who is right there steadily enforcing all the policies right behind. Your thoughts, as we wrap up?

MUSTAFA ALI: Well, Andrew Wheeler is just as dangerous or more so than Scott Pruitt. Coming from the background that he comes from, the actions that he has taken directly impact the lives of communities across our country. Over 200,000 people die prematurely from air pollution in our country every year. So, if you are weakening air protection laws, then you are putting folks in danger. Twenty-seven million people have asthma. Seven million children have asthma. So, again, these actions that they’re moving forward on are dangerous for the American public.

And then, if you look at climate change, if they would go to communities like Houston, Texas, or Port Arthur, Texas, or Princeville, North Carolina, where folks have been impacted by these strengthening hurricanes and these flood-related events, then folks would share with them that we want you to have stronger enforcement. We want to have stronger laws in place to help us to be better protected. So I see him as dangerous as Scott Pruitt, if he continues down to the same road that he has over the past 25 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Kristin Mink, my final question is to you. I think the whole country, perhaps the world, wants to know: Who do you want to bump into next at lunch?

KRISTIN MINK: If this was actually effective, obviously, I’d love to bump into Donald Trump. But, I mean, I think what this really comes down to is, if we’re looking at who we want to get rid of and who we want in there protecting us, the imperative here is to get to the polls in November. We need a Congress that’s going to protect us, moving forward, that’s going to prioritize science and safety and the health of our citizens and our children and the next generation. The current Congress approved Scott Pruitt, who had sued the EPA for trying to protect public health, and now they’re appointing Andy Wheeler to follow in his footsteps. So, clearly, the Congress that’s in place is not what we need right now. We need to get to the polls and turn Congress blue this November.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Kristin Mink, I want to thank you for being with us, a D.C. teacher and mom. I think you’ve taught the whole country a lesson as you bumped into Scott Pruitt and let him know what you thought this week, demanding he resign. Two days later, well, that’s what happened. Mustafa Ali, a former EPA official, now with Hip Hop Caucus. Chris Zarba, ex-director of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board. And, Emily Atkin, we’ll link to your pieces in The New Republic.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, what’s happening to affirmative action in this country? What are President Trump’s plans? Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Wear Clean Draws” by The Coup, written and performed by Oakland, California, native Boots Riley. Boots’ directorial debut, the acclaimed film Sorry to Bother You, opens in select cities today and across the United States on July 13.

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