Although Andrew Wheeler has sought to distance himself from Scott Pruitt in some important ways as acting head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he’s also signaled a continuation of his predecessor’s agenda.
Two immediate examples: his decision to ease coal ash storage rules and announcement to weaken clean car standards.
But there are four specific tests Wheeler faces that we’ll be watching closely over the next several months. They will shed more light on whether he plans to uphold the mission of the EPA, or continue the Trump-Pruitt all-out assault on protections for people and the environment.
1. Will he halt the “censored science” rule?
Before Pruitt resigned amid ethics scandals in July, he proposed a “censored science” rule championed by polluting industries. This change would effectively bar the agency from using many high-quality scientific studies in the development of safeguards from toxic exposures.
Under the guise of transparency, Pruitt’s plan would only allow use of studies that make all their research public – even though gold standard research often relies on personal medical information scientists must protect for legal and ethical reasons. This would effectively censor valid science on chemical risks, air pollution, adverse health effects and other facts that polluters aim to suppress.
Wheeler can stop the proposed rule at any time, and once again center his agency on the best and most comprehensive science and research.
2. Will he reverse Pruitt’s interstate smog decision?
In its petition, Maryland asked the agency to require coal-burning power plants in five upwind states to use pollution control equipment already installed at 36 units. It would reduce interstate pollution and dangerous smog for millions of people in the region.
Under Pruitt, the EPA proposed denying this and a similar petition from Delaware. Wheeler now has an opportunity to reverse course and confirm EPA’s duty to address interstate pollution.
3. Will he stand up against Trump to protect EPA’s budget?
President Trump and Pruitt twice proposed budgets that would have gutted the EPA’s ability to carry out its mission of protecting human health. These cuts would have meant more air pollution and contaminated water, more exposure to lead and toxic chemicals, more asthma attacks and more preventable deaths across America.
It’s clear that President Trump is working to kneecap the EPA through both executive action and budgetary processes. We’re watching to see if Wheeler will stand up for an agency that is already stretched thin with personnel and funding.
4. Will he defend life-saving chemical disaster rules?
Pruitt proposed to gut rules the EPA adopted after a 2013 chemical explosion killed 15 people at a Texas fertilizer plant, including a dozen first responders. The former EPA administrator’s plan would weaken accident prevention measures and reduce the flow of information to local communities affected by such accidents.
Wheeler has said he will make “risk communication” a priority. Reinstituting the chemical disaster measures would show that he’s willing to put action to his words. People’s lives are directly at risk.
There’s more on Wheeler’s plate than these four tests, of course. As head of the EPA, he also needs to cut carbon pollution from power plants, defend a much-needed chemical safety law, and keep methane emissions in check.
The coming months will illuminate the agenda [PDF] of the man charged with keeping our environment clean and helping Americans live healthier lives.