Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), struck a conciliatory tone with employees on Wednesday in his first public appearance since taking over, interlacing a few jokes along the way.
Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist who began his career in the EPA's Pollution Prevention and Toxics office during the George H. W. Bush administration, was tapped by President Trump to lead the agency after former administrator Scott Pruitt resigned earlier this month.
A former minority staff director for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Wheeler told staff that he understood "firsthand the stress that goes along with a change in management or a change in reorganization. We're going through that change now. I understand how stressful that can be, and I want you to know that I understand that, and I will try to minimize the stress that you all deal with on a daily basis as employees here at the agency."
With a nod toward the controversies surrounding Pruitt that ultimately led to his downfall, Wheeler said, "I know that many of you developed a passion for the environment at an early age, and pursued a career at EPA for that very reason. Just like me, you came to EPA to help the environment. I know firsthand how dedicated and passionate you are, and it is a privilege to work alongside you and lead the agency in its vital mission of protecting human health and the environment...
"To the employees, I want you to know that I will start with the presumption that you are performing our work as well as it can be done. My instinct will be to defend your work, and I will seek the facts from you before drawing conclusions."
Wheeler praised the president and Pruitt for their leadership, which he said brought "tremendous progress over the last year and a half," and signaled that EPA's policies enacted by his predecessor would continue.
"We are restoring the rule of law, reining in federal regulatory overreach and refocusing EPA on its core responsibilities," Wheeler said. "When President Trump called me last week and asked me to take the lead, he asked me to focus on three key areas. He said 'clean up the air, clean up the water, and provide regulatory relief.' I think we can do all three of those things at the same time."
Wheeler said EPA must provide more certainty to the American public. "A lack of certainty and clarity from EPA hinders environmental protections and creates paralysis in the marketplace," he said. To attain that goal, he said EPA needed to provide certainty to states and local governments, in agency programs such as permitting and enforcement actions, and in risk communication.
On permitting, Wheeler said EPA should be making decisions within a six-month period. "I am not suggesting that we approve all permits within a set amount of time," Wheeler said. "I am suggesting that we make a decision, yes or no, up or down, within a set amount of time."
Timely enforcement actions also are important, Wheeler said, because companies must disclose pending enforcement actions in their annual reports to shareholders, often proving a range of the fines they may be subjected to.
"When the agency and our partners at the Department of Justice don't settle the enforcement actions, they can linger for years and companies must report them year after year," Wheeler said. "This hurts the competitiveness of U.S. businesses. It also delays actions that may be necessary to prevent harm to the environment.
"Let me be clear, I am not advocating for letting people off the hook or reducing fines. Rather, I'm advocating for making enforcement decisions in a timely and consistent manner. Accomplishing this would dramatically improve our relationship with American businesses and take away a lot of the criticisms that are lobbed at the agency."
He said much of his attention would be devoted to risk communication, which "goes to the heart of EPA's mission of protecting public health and the environment. We must be able to speak with one voice and clearly explain to the American people the relevant environmental and health risks that they face, that their families face, and that their children face."
Wheeler previously served as chief of staff for Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), and he also worked at the EPA during the Clinton administration. He most recently worked as a principal at FaegreBD Consulting and is a former lobbyist who represented, among others, Murray Energy Corp. Murray has sued the EPA over proposed changes to National Ambient Air Quality Standards.