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Who Is Andrew Wheeler? (And Why You Should Be Afraid of Him)

Climate
Andrew Wheeler during his confirmation hearing to be deputy administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Media Punch Inc / Alamy

By Jeff Turrentine

Scott Pruitt's long record of misdeeds and malfeasance finally seems to have caught up with him. Whether his numerous scandals, recently making headlines, will cost him his job as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is still an open question.


President Trump has been tweeting his support of his EPA administrator, doing whatever he can to dispel growing rumors of an imminent firing or an abrupt resignation. But given the drip-drip-drip of near-daily revelations, it's safe to assume that news editors already have their Pruitt postmortems written, copyedited and ready to publish at a moment's notice. In this administration, a statement of support from the White House shouldn't be taken as a sign that one's job is safe. (Indeed, it's often an ominous prelude to termination. Just ask H. R. McMaster or Rex Tillerson.)

Meanwhile, there's another big EPA story that's deserving of our attention but getting far less of it. Thursday, a slim majority of senators approved Andrew Wheeler to be the EPA's deputy administrator―the person who could end up running the agency should the current administrator suddenly decide (as so, so many Washingtonians before him have decided) that he really wants to spend more time with his family.

If you're hoping Wheeler could represent some sort of departure from Pruitt's (literal) scorched-earth agenda, he wouldn't. While it may be impossible to imagine anyone worse than Pruitt to lead our nation's environmental policy, plenty of individuals could be just as bad. And as he's shown us on numerous occasions, President Trump has a sixth sense for ferreting these people out and putting them on the executive-branch payroll.

So who is Andrew Wheeler? And what is it about his particular career trajectory that makes the White House, energy-company executives and assorted climate deniers think he's a perfect fit for the Trump-era EPA?

Well, for starters, his most recent job was as an energy lobbyist. His biggest clients included Murray Energy Corporation, which proudly bills itself as the largest coal mining company in America, and whose CEO, Robert E. Murray, vigorously fought the Obama administration's attempts to reduce carbon emissions and strengthen environmental and public health laws. Shortly after Trump took office, Murray, an unabashed climate denier, presented Vice President Mike Pence with a ridiculously pro-coal "action plan" that called for doing away with the Clean Power Plan, withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, eliminating federal tax credits for renewable energy, and—yes—halving the EPA's workforce.

In his spare time, Wheeler serves as the vice president of the Washington Coal Club, a powerful yet little-known federation of more than 300 coal producers, lawmakers, business leaders and policy experts who have dedicated themselves to preserving the uncertain future of our dirtiest fossil fuel. Wheeler clearly loves coal, but he's also made time to lobby the U.S. Department of the Interior to open portions of the Bears Ears National Monument to uranium mining.

It gets worse. Before joining his current K Street lobbying firm, Wheeler worked as a legislative aide to Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe. Inhofe is without question the most virulent climate denier on Capitol Hill—a man who regularly refers to the science of climate change as "the greatest hoax" ever perpetrated on the American people and who told one radio interviewer that educating schoolchildren on the basics of climate science was tantamount to "brainwashing." When Wheeler's nomination was announced last year, Inhofe effusively praised the decision, saying that "there is no one more qualified than Andrew to help Scott Pruitt restore EPA to its proper size and scope."

In that same statement, Inhofe referred to Wheeler as his "close friend"; indeed, the two are close enough that Wheeler thought it perfectly appropriate to organize a fund-raiser for Inhofe last May, an act that many believe crossed ethical lines.

The line on Wheeler from people in the know is that he's essentially Scott Pruitt's ideological twin—but that his many years as a Washington insider have endowed him with a political savvy that Pruitt sorely lacks. Were the increasingly embattled Pruitt to leave, few believe that this replacement would deviate from Pruitt's path of rolling back protections, propping up the moribund coal industry and putting energy company profits ahead of public health.

From all accounts, Wheeler doesn't appear to be a paranoid, self-aggrandizing morale destroyer with a highly developed taste for taxpayer-funded first-class travel. He has more friends than enemies in Washington and seems unlikely to shoot himself in the foot or otherwise self-destruct. In the end, that might actually make Wheeler even more dangerous than Pruitt—not less.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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