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New EPA head defends his work with the coal industry in first address

During his first address as acting administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, downplayed his ties to the coal industry while arguing that the media has unfairly honed in on his work history.

Speaking before EPA staffers and members of the press for the first time since he assumed the duties of former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt on Wednesday afternoon, Wheeler quickly announced his intention to “go off-script” in order to address his prior work with the coal industry.

“I did work for a coal company and I’m not ashamed of the work I did for a coal company,” Wheeler began.

“I know in the press [my work history] has been used by some people in a derogatory manner,” he continued, going on to note that his grandfather had worked as coal miner during the Great Depression and emphasizing the struggles inherent within the job.

“I get frustrated with the media when they report I was a coal lobbyist,” said Wheeler, who worked as coal lobbyist for Murray Energy Corp, the largest coal mining company in the United States. During his time as a lobbyist, Wheeler argued, he fought for coal miner pensions and sought to protect workers.

In addition to touting his energy work, Wheeler also laid out his priorities for the EPA, including accelerating the process by which permits are approved or denied and visiting all EPA regional offices “as soon as possible.” He repeatedly emphasized a commitment to “risk communication” improvement, which he said would be one of his primary focuses. Wheeler did not once reference climate change.

Environmental organizations fired back immediately following the address, honing in on Wheeler’s defense of his coal lobbying.

“No one should forget that Wheeler is a coal lobbyist dogged by ethical issues who is now doing things at the EPA that corporate polluters once paid him to ask Scott Pruitt to do,” said Sierra Club Resist campaign director Maura Cowley in a statement released shortly after Wheeler’s address. “Wheeler looks a lot like Pruitt 2.0, and no one should have confidence that he will do what is necessary to keep our families safe from the corporate polluters who signed his paychecks just months ago.”

Wheeler is likely to face such questions as he takes over for Pruitt. His predecessor’s EPA tenure was dogged by scandals and missteps, in addition to a hostile relationship with the press, unusually opaque even by traditional EPA standards.

Wheeler, by contrast, has been seen as a savvier and more charismatic leader, making himself more available to reporters and emphasizing transparency. At the conclusion of Wednesday’s press briefing, he cracked jokes about the Lord of the Rings and The Godfather, to chuckles from the audience.

But Wheeler’s energy lobbying is likely to follow him. He worked on behalf of Murray Energy for years, including during the Trump administration, and between 2009 and 2017, the corporation paid Wheeler some $300,000. He has also worked for Xcel Energy and the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Wheeler’s critics worry that his more charismatic and open approach will calm lawmakers and ease focus on the Trump administration’s efforts to unravel Obama-era regulations and initiatives. The new EPA leader has already emphasized his commitment to President Trump’s agenda, a pledge he repeated on Wednesday.

Moreover, shaking free from Pruitt’s habits is already proving hard for Wheeler. At least two former industry officials are already advising the new EPA head. Peter Wright is the former senior attorney for the Dow Chemical Company, now DowDuPont, and will be overseeing chemical plant safety rules. Chad McIntosh worked as environmental policy chief for Ford Motor Co. and has been tapped to lead the the EPA’s international and tribal affairs office.

Both positions require confirmation by the Senate but, per an internal email, both men began work on Monday. The top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW), Sen. Tom Carper (D), told ThinkProgress the decision to bring on McIntosh and Wright without notifying EPW showed “poor judgement” and indicated a continuation of the “problematic behavior” exhibited by Pruitt’s office.

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