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By Abby Smith
Andrew Wheeler’s first week at the helm of the EPA was jam packed with industry meetings, staff briefings, and calls with members of Congress.
Making those activities public knowledge is a sharp break with his predecessor Scott Pruitt and indicative of a shift in agency transparency.
Wheeler, the Environmental Protection Agency acting administrator since Pruitt’s July 6 departure, has updated his public calendar daily since taking over. Pruitt’s calendar, by contrast, hasn’t been updated beyond June 22. That simple change is emblematic of how Wheeler will increase transparency, according to the lawmakers, environmental consultants, and business representatives who have met with him.
“The overall direction of the agency I don’t really see changing much, but I think you’ll see a difference in the way I talk about issues,” Wheeler told Bloomberg Environment in a July 16 interview.
“I’m looking at the complaints the agency’s received over the last 20 some years and trying to figure out what are the ways we can address those complaints and move the agency into the 21st century,” Wheeler added.
Wheeler is expected to approach the process with the steadier, more visible hand that industry and trade groups have privately and sometimes publicly griped the agency’s prior leader lacked. Pruitt was criticized for allegedly keeping a secret calendar, not publicizing his travel or speaking engagements, and interacting infrequently with career EPA staff.
“I would wake up every morning to headlines, and it was very unclear to me how what happened that day, whether related to policy or not, might impact policy,” Shane Skelton, an environmental consultant with the California-based firm S2C Pacific, told Bloomberg Environment. Skelton met with Wheeler July 13.
Wheeler “is going to be very transparent in his process, very thorough in making sure procedures are followed,” added Skelton, who previously served as an energy and environment adviser to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.).
Wheeler held more than 20 briefings with EPA staff during his first week in the agency’s top slot. In the last full week of Pruitt’s calendar made publicly available, June 18-22, he had less than half that number and it isn’t clear whether those meetings included career staff.
Wheeler “has a much different outlook on the agency than his predecessor,” Brent Fewell, founder of Earth and Water Law Group, told Bloomberg Environment. Fewell brought his client, Republican donor Andy Sabin, into the EPA to meet with Wheeler on July 11.
Pruitt “knew the agency only through litigation. He came at the agency as an overreaching entity to be tamed,” added Fewell, who worked in the EPA’s water and congressional affairs offices during the George W. Bush administration. Wheeler “comes in with a respect for the agency and its mission and the career employees.”
Wheeler will continue the open-door policy he began as deputy administrator, an EPA spokesperson told Bloomberg Environment. His initial meetings included some discussions with political and career leadership to get up to speed on matters Pruitt was intimately involved in, but also broader introductions to employees to explain his agenda and set expectations, the spokesperson added.
The new acting administrator dove into thorny policy issues during meetings with industry and lawmakers of both parties in his first week on the job.
He discussed the renewable fuel standard, which pits the petroleum industry against corn states, with both Dallas-based refiner HollyFrontier Corp. and Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce environment subpanel.
“We appreciated the productive conversation and look forward to working with Acting Administrator Wheeler and his staff on this and other important environmental issues,” Denise Clark McWatters, the company’s senior vice president and general counsel, told Bloomberg Environment in a statement.
Shimkus told Bloomberg Environment he let Wheeler know he is “used to the White House riling people up” over the issue and just wants consistent enforcement of the law. The two also discussed implementation of the federal chemicals law and the EPA’s plans to replace Obama-era greenhouse gas limits for power plants, Shimkus added.
Wheeler also met with pesticide maker Monsanto on July 12.
“Andrew Wheeler is very competent. I think he’s the right person in this job,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the top Republican on the Senate environment committee who met with Wheeler July 10, told Bloomberg Environment.
—With assistance from Alex Ebert, David Schultz, and Dean Scott
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