WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s acting chief said on Wednesday he would push to cut regulations on industry and speed up decisions on permits, echoing the policies of former head Scott Pruitt who stepped down last week.
Andrew Wheeler, a longtime Washington insider, took the reins on Monday after Pruitt, a former attorney general from Oklahoma, resigned over more than a dozen ethics controversies.
Unlike Pruitt, Wheeler has been known to shun the spotlight. But some environmentalists say his experience means he can carry out Trump’s policy of slashing regulations more effectively.
Wheeler said President Donald Trump talked to him last week and asked him to provide regulatory relief to industry while protecting air and water quality. “I think we can do all three of those things at the same time,” Wheeler said in his first address to EPA staff.
Environmentalists have complained that the EPA under Trump has worked to reverse Obama era limits on pollution.
Wheeler worked at the EPA in the 1990s and later in the Senate under Senator Jim Inhofe, a skeptic of mainstream climate science, before moving to the private sector as a lobbyist and consultant. He said that he was “not at all ashamed” of more recent lobbying for the coal company Murray Energy Corp, the focus of criticism by environmentalists.
His top issue in work for Murray was the Miners Protection Act, shoring up pension and healthcare benefits for United Mine Worker retirees, said Wheeler, whose grandfather was a coal miner during the Great Depression.
Robert Murray, the company’s chief executive, has pressured the Trump administration to ease regulations on mining.
Wheeler also lobbied for energy interests including utility Xcel Energy Inc, Bears Head LNG. He also consulted for biofuels industry group Growth Energy, agricultural merchant and biofuels producer Archer Daniels Midland, and International Paper, according to his public financial disclosures.
The EPA will prioritize cleaning up industrial Superfund sites and financing investments in water infrastructure, Wheeler said, continuing Pruitt’s goal of bringing the agency “back to basics.”
Wheeler also pledged to speed up permitting, setting a goal of issuing decisions on all permits before the agency in six months. He said this would ease uncertainty for small businesses.
Left unmentioned was Pruitt’s final move at the agency to undo rules on refurbished trucks known as “gliders,” which environmentalists say generate as much as 40 times the pollution of modern engines.
Like Pruitt, Wheeler believes the EPA in the previous administration of Barack Obama overstepped federal clean air law by issuing rules to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Wheeler, who had been confirmed by the Senate to serve as Pruitt’s deputy, will deal with issues including replacing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, requirements of biofuels mixed into gasoline and diesel, and whether the EPA chief has a role in promoting U.S. fossil-fuel exports.
On Monday, after pressure from industry for regulatory certainty, the EPA sent a rule to reduce greenhouse emissions from power plants to the White House’s office of Management and Budget for review. It is expected to be more industry friendly than the Clean Power Plan. The EPA will open the rule to public comment after the OMB reviews it.
It is not yet known if Trump will nominate Wheeler to replace Pruitt permanently, if he does, the Senate would again have to confirm him.
Reporting by Timothy Gardner; editing by Peter Cooney and Tom Brown