WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump said Friday that he intends to nominate former industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as the Environmental Protection Agency's next administrator, a move that would ensure a continued deregulatory push at the agency.
Trump made the impromptu announcement during a Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House, saying that Wheeler had done a "fantastic job" as the agency's acting administrator in recent months. Wheeler took the helm in early July after Scott Pruitt resigned amid mounting ethics scandals.
During his brief tenure as the EPA's acting chief, Wheeler has proved far different from the man he replaced. Where Pruitt was a politician who enjoyed the limelight and trappings of Cabinet life, Wheeler has long worked behind the scenes on energy and environmental policy and generally avoids public attention. Along with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, Wheeler represents the sort of technocrat who has risen through the ranks after an initial Trump Cabinet pick stumbled.
But Wheeler and his predecessor have this much in common: a zeal to deregulate. Wheeler made clear from the start that he intends to carry out many of the regulatory rollbacks set in motion under Pruitt, and to pursue new ones.
"I will try to work to implement the president's agenda," Wheeler told The Post shortly after he took over the reins at EPA this summer. " I don't think the overall agenda is going to change that much, because we're implementing what the president has laid out for the agency."
In the months since, Wheeler has continued to advance Trump's agenda, proposing rules to loosen carbon limits on power plants and relax fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. Those proposals, along with moves to change the way the agency calculates the health benefits of new air pollution standards, have sparked sharp criticism from environmental and public health groups.
But Wheeler also has struck a more conciliatory tone with career employees at the agency, emphasizing that he once served in their ranks and that he values their service. He also has postponed some of Pruitt's more controversial regulatory plans, including one relaxing emissions rules for long-haul trucks that place older engines in newer bodies, known as glider kits.
Just this week, Wheeler announced a plan to impose stricter limits on nitrogen oxide emissions from heavy-duty trucks, winning praise from both the trucking industry and the American Lung Association.
Wheeler, like his predecessor, undoubtedly will have the support of industry.
"Andrew's steady hand will help ensure a balanced approach that will continue both environmental progress and economic growth," said Karen Harbert, president of the Chamber of Commerce's Global Energy Institute.
Scott Segal, an energy lobbyist at the Bracewell law firm, called Wheeler "a good pick."
"Andrew Wheeler's background shows that he has the capacity to advance an appropriate balance of energy, environmental and economic considerations in a manner consistent with open administrative process and respect for rule of law," he said in a statement.
Wheeler stands a strong chance of winning Senate confirmation, though his nomination is still likely to spur a serious debate. He won approval for his current job in April on a 53-to-45 vote, with three Democrats supporting his nomination. At the time, several Democratic senators questioned his past work for Murray Energy, one of the nation's biggest coal companies, as well mining firms and other energy interests.
The top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Thomas Carper of Delaware, said in a statement that he would evaluate how Wheeler has performed in recent months before deciding whether to back his nomination.
"If the president intends to nominate Andrew Wheeler to be the Administrator of EPA," Carper said, "then Mr. Wheeler must come before our committee so that members can look at his record as acting administrator objectively to see if any improvements have been made at the agency since he took the helm."
His fellow Democrat, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, was less diplomatic.
"I hoped Scott Pruitt's policy dirty work would dry up after he left the EPA in disgrace, but proposals like the forthcoming rule to weaken or eliminate protections against mercury emissions make it clear Andrew Wheeler plans to continue that capture with rollbacks of vital environmental protections," Whitehouse said in a statement.
Environmentalist activists also were quick to criticize the idea of Wheeler as EPA chief.
"In normal times, a zealous fossil fuel apologist and the top official in charge of protecting children's health from pollution would be two separate people with conflicting agendas," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. "But this is the Trump administration, where a former top coal lobbyist could become administrator of the EPA."
This article was written by Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin, reporters for The Washington Post.