Acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler gave his first public address, providing a glimpse into how he will lead the country’s top environmental regulatory agency.
Wheeler addressed EPA staffers Wednesday, only days after Scott Pruitt resigned as EPA chief amid mounting scandals that engulfed his tenure. The nearly 20-minute speech offered a brief and much anticipated view into Wheeler’s personality and management style. The former lobbyist explained his background, defended his past work and even made a Trump-like ding at the media.
“Since this is my first time speaking to many of you, and since you’ve probably only been reading flattering things about me in the press, allow me to briefly introduce myself and then explain my vision and priorities for the EPA,” he said.
The line was in clear reference to the extensive news coverage Wheeler received upon President Donald Trump’s announcement on July 5 that he would be taking over Pruitt’s responsibilities. Critics immediately hit Wheeler’s past lobbying work for a coal company, claiming he would be another ally to the fossil fuel industry. The new EPA leader hit back against this narrative.
“After I left the Hill, I worked in the private sector for nine years,” he said. “I had a number of clients. If you read in the press, I only had one, but I actually had over 20 clients.”
He went on to give a few examples of the clients he had.
“I did work for a coal company,” Wheeler said. “I am not at all ashamed for the work I did for the coal company.”
Wheeler went into detail about his past effort to pass the Miners Protection Act while he was an energy lobbyist. The Miners Protection Act was introduced to shore up health care and pension benefits for United Mineworkers retirees. Wheeler said he was proud to see the health care benefits pass the Senate chamber before he left to join the EPA. (RELATED: What Acting EPA Chief Andrew Wheeler Means For Trump’s Deregulation Agenda)
Wheeler also offered praise to EPA staffers — Democrats and Republicans alike.
“The EPA employees were some of the most dedicated of all the federal career employees in the federal government,” he said. “I say that because I know that many of you have developed a passion for the environment at an early age and pursued a career at EPA for that very reason.”
After over a year of a tumultuous relationship between career EPA staffers and Pruitt, Wheeler’s speech was meant as an olive branch and an invitation to begin a new chapter. He told the audience members that he valued their input and was ready to listen.
As far as policy is concerned, Wheeler touted progress made with Superfund sites, water infrastructure and enhancing air quality around the country. Wheeler did still pay homage to the Trump administration’s priority of streamlining the agency.
“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.”
In what was a humorous ending to the speech, Wheeler said he wasn’t able to take questions. However, he provided a random list of “answers” such as “Cincinnati chili,” the “Lord of the Rings trilogy,” “C” and “all of the above,” telling the press they could fill in the questions afterward.
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