President Donald Trump said Friday he plans to nominate Andrew Wheeler to be the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, installing the former coal lobbyist permanently in a position he’s filled in an acting role since July.
Speaking at a Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House, Trump said: “Acting administrator, who I tell you is going to be made permanent, he’s done a fantastic job and I want to congratulate him.”
Wheeler, who took over four months ago when scandal-plagued former Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned in disgrace, told The New York Times he “would like to be nominated to be the administrator.”
“I think I’m making a difference,” he said. “This is a transitional time for the agency. We’ve started a number of initiatives that I’d like to see through to conclusion.”
The EPA did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request to interview Wheeler.
The move is a formality. The Senate easily confirmed Wheeler to be deputy administrator in April with support from every Republican and three Democrats. Republican challengers unseated two of those Democrats, and the remaining one, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), is expected to support Wheeler again.
In a tweet, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), whom Wheeler served as a top aide in the early 2000s, called him “the perfect choice to lead the EPA” and a “great pick.”
Wheeler’s nomination swiftly drew criticism from environmentalists, who resoundingly oppose his deregulatory agenda and condemn his refusal to accept as settled the science showing industrial emissions are the main cause of climate change.
“I think I’m making a difference.”
“Wheeler is far more dangerous than Pruitt, and if allowed to run the EPA for two more years, would cause irreversible damage to our environment,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the nonpartisan Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “His giveaways to special interest polluters are sickening our children and shortening people’s lifespans. He needs to be rejected by the Senate if nominated.”
Even if green groups drummed up enough votes to tank his confirmation, experts said Wheeler could, in theory, stay on in an acting capacity indefinitely due to conflicting rules for acting chiefs at the EPA.
The announcement comes days after Wheeler surprised his critics by unveiling a new initiative aimed at toughening pollution rules on big-rig trucks.
“Burdensome regulations are not necessary to drive environmental progress,” he said during a call with reporters Monday. He touted the EPA’s efforts to gut regulations that cost industry players a combined $1.6 billion, and said he planned to propose 49 additional “deregulatory actions estimated to provide up to $100 billion in savings.”
Wheeler has not been without his own controversies. As HuffPost reported in October, the agency chief repeatedly engaged with inflammatory content on his personal Facebook and Twitter accounts over the past five years. The online activity included liking a racist image of former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on Facebook and retweeting an infamous “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist. At least two Democratic senators called on him to resign over the revelations.
In early February, The Intercept published a report detailing fundraisers that Wheeler held for Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Inhofe in May, five months before his formal nomination to be deputy administrator came before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, on which the senators serve.
“Trump’s decision to appoint him to the position is a decision to double down on failure and will lead to weakened protections for clean air and water,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who led the charge to investigate Pruitt, said in a statement. “Andrew Wheeler remains a coal lobbyist at heart, and the Senate should reject his appointment.”
This story has been updated throughout.