It’s almost hard to believe now, but a year ago, the Environmental Protection Agency seemed to make news every day. Scott Pruitt, the agency’s head at the time, was trying to dismantle myriad Obama-era environmental and public health regulations at the behest of polluting industries. He was also wasting millions of taxpayer dollars, primarily on first-class travel and a 24-7 security entourage, and retaliating against staffers who expressed concern about it. He even got a discount on a Capitol Hill condo linked to energy lobbyists. He was a classic Washington villain, and the media couldn’t get enough of it.
President Trump eventually tired of the scandals, forcing Pruitt to resign in July. Environmentalists rejoiced, but there was a silver lining to Pruitt’s bungling leadership and blatant corruption: It got the public to pay attention to more important matters, namely Pruitt’s pursuit of policies that threatened to cost billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives.
Those same policies are underway today at the EPA, except by a different and deeply boring administrator: Andrew Wheeler. A former coal lobbyist, Wheeler is a far more effective skipper for Trump’s anti-climate, anti-science agenda than Pruitt was, but he’s not gotten as much attention for it—likely because he’s not spending his time trying to secure an “old mattress” from the Trump International Hotel or installing a soundproof phone booth.
Wheeler’s most significant step came on Wednesday, when he signed a final rule to repeal and replace the Clean Power Plan (CPP), President Obama’s signature regulation to fight climate change. Whereas the CPP would have required fossil fuel power plants to significantly reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, Wheeler’s replacement plan doesn’t require the industry to do much at all—and might actually be worse for the climate than having no regulation whatsoever.
The new Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule requires the power sector to cut its emissions by 35 percent over 2005 levels by 2030. It’s a measly target, one that “the industry is already on track to achieve, even without federal regulation,” The Washington Post noted—and one that is “less than half of what experts calculate is needed to avert catastrophic warming of the planet.” The rule also amends existing law to allow old coal plants to upgrade their equipment without installing costly new pollution controls. Thus, old, polluting coal plants that likely would have closed without the ACE rule may now remain open for longer.
The ACE rule is expected to have dire, even fatal consequences for Americans’ health. When Wheeler’s EPA first proposed the rule last year, it disclosed that up to 1,400 more people might die every year from increased soot pollution under the new rule compared to Obama’s, and that there might be up to 120,000 new cases of exacerbated asthma every year. But instead of changing the rule to limit its public health impact, the EPA decided to change how the agency estimates the effects of air pollution. The new methodology “has never been peer-reviewed and is not scientifically sound, according to five people with knowledge of the agency’s plans,” according to The New York Times.
The EPA has been tampering with the scientific process since Trump took office. As InsideClimate News reported earlier this month, Wheeler intends to move forward with a policy to drastically change how science is used to create public health regulations. Titled, “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” and first proposed by Pruitt, the policy would ban the EPA from using research showing that air pollution is bad for your health. Wheeler’s reasoning is that such research relies on confidential human health data, and is therefore not trustworthy. It’s the same tactic and logic that the tobacco industry once used to discredit science showing cigarettes killed people.
Wheeler appears to pride himself on seeming fair and moderate. As the Times once described him, he “is viewed as a consummate Washington insider who avoids the limelight and has spent years effectively navigating the rules.” He doesn’t explicitly deny the existence of human-caused climate change, and insists he takes it seriously. He also isn’t as openly hostile to the media as many other Trump appointees. When he took office, the Associated Press claimed Wheeler wanted a more “inclusive approach” toward journalists and career scientists at the agency.
In a media environment where idiocy is considered more newsworthy than cruelty, this is a smart way to avoid attention to your pernicious schemes.