Trump EPA head, coal lobbyist tapped as Virginia’s environmental chief

Wheeler pick sparks sharp opposition from Democrats, conservation groups

By: - January 5, 2022 2:52 pm

Former EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler testifies at a hearing titled Oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on May 20, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Pool via Getty Images)

Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin announced Trump EPA chief and former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as his pick for Virginia’s next secretary of natural and historic resources. 

“Virginia needs a diverse energy portfolio in place to fuel our economic growth, continued preservation of our natural resources, and a comprehensive plan to tackle rising sea levels,” said Youngkin in a news release announcing not only his selection of Wheeler but his intention to replace long-standing Department of Environmental Quality Director David Paylor with wetland restoration firm head Michael Rolband. 

“Andrew and Michael share my vision in finding new ways to innovate and use our natural resources to provide Virginia with a stable, dependable and growing power supply that will meet Virginia’s power demands without passing the costs on to the consumer,” said Youngkin. 

The choice, which was first broken by Politico early Wednesday and announced by Youngkin’s transition team Wednesday afternoon, sent shock waves through the state’s environmental circles. 

“This is hands down the most extreme nomination for an environmental post in Virginia’s history and the absolute worst pick that the governor-elect could make,” said Mike Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. “While we were optimistic we might be able to find some common ground with the new administration moving forward, this nomination makes it plainly clear that environmental protections are under attack in Virginia, and we are prepared to fight to defend them.”

Wheeler, who served as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 2019 until the end of President Donald Trump’s administration, was an outspoken proponent of environmental deregulation during his tenure, ruffling feathers even among his own agency scientists

The former coal lobbyist’s views on climate change have also troubled many environmentalists. While Wheeler during confirmation hearings for his EPA appointment said that “climate change is real” and “man has an impact on it,” he subsequently oversaw the unwinding of numerous regulations to reduce climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions.  

Among the actions taken during his tenure were the rollback of President Barack Obama’s never-enacted Clean Power Plan to reduce emissions from coal plants as well as the Obama administration’s stricter fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. Current Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring sued Wheeler and his EPA at least six times over environmental issues.

Since the end of his EPA term, Wheeler has slowly inched into Virginia politics. In September, he spoke out against a five-cent plastic bag tax during a hearing before Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors. In November, following sweeping Republican victories in Virginia elections, he was appointed to Youngkin’s transition team

One of two wind turbines off the coast of Virginia Beach that comprise Dominion Energy’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind pilot project. (Sarah Vogelsong/ Virginia Mercury)

Youngkin’s choice of Wheeler for the natural resources secretary position quickly provoked opposition from Democrats, who are already wary of the incoming governor’s environmental stance after Youngkin’s surprise December announcement that he intends to use executive action to pull Virginia out of a regional carbon market. Virginia’s participation in that market had been a top priority of Democrats when they took power in 2020. 

Democratic Party of Virginia Chair Susan Swecker said Youngkin’s pick “makes clear that his administration will continue to fail Virginia on climate change as sea levels rise, rain events become more severe and record-setting temperatures threaten our economy and natural resources.” 

Where Democrats’ opposition will matter most, however, will be in the Senate, where the party maintains a narrow 21-19 edge and could conceivably block an appointment such as Wheeler’s. 

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said Wednesday that while Senate Democrats haven’t discussed the natural resources pick as a caucus, “I think a lot of our members are going to have very serious concerns” with Wheeler. 

“I would think any Republican member who’s in any kind of competitive suburban seat would really need to think twice about voting for someone like him given where Virginia’s been leading on environmental policy,” said Surovell. 

Jacqueline Hixson, a spokesperson for the Senate Democrats, said in an email that she couldn’t “say definitively whether any Youngkin appointments will be confirmed by the Senate.” 

Harry Godfrey, executive director of Virginia Advanced Energy Economy, a clean energy business group that was one of the main architects of Democratic climate legislation in 2020, said that “it is vital” that the Senate consider Wheeler’s record with EPA to “determine whether it aligns with the policy direction that the General Assembly has established in recent years.” 

Virginia under its last two years of Democratic control garnered national headlines for its efforts to combat climate change through decarbonization with a slate of policies more in line with those of Mid-Atlantic and New England states than its southern neighbors. 

Under Gov. Ralph Northam and Democratic leadership of the General Assembly, Virginia pushed through measures committing the state’s electric grid to becoming carbon-free by 2045, authorizing participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative cap-and-invest market and adopting the more stringent California auto emissions standards in place of federal ones. 

The energy industry has responded to the policy measures. According to a report from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, utility-scale solar is on track to become the state’s third largest source of electricity this year, displacing coal. In a major win for the state’s efforts to become the East Coast’s primary offshore wind hub, Siemens Gamesa this October announced it would build the nation’s first offshore wind turbine blade facility in Portsmouth

Both the state’s two largest electric utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company, have also pivoted toward renewables. Appalachian Power began drawing power from solar for the first time this fall and on Tuesday released what it calls its “most robust renewables plan to date,” with plans to add almost 500 megawatts of solar and wind over the next three years.

Dominion, which plans to build a massive 2.6 gigawatt wind farm off the coast of Virginia Beach, has almost entirely divested its natural gas business and is selling investors on what it describes as “the largest, the broadest in scope, the longest in duration and the most visible regulated decarbonization opportunity among U.S. utilities.” 

Republicans including Youngkin, however, have attacked many of the new policies as too costly for consumers and too risky for the electric grid, emphasizing a 2020 estimate by the State Corporation Commission that the Virginia Clean Economy Act will raise the average residential customer’s annual costs by $800 by 2030. During his campaign, Youngkin described the VCEA as “unworkable” and warned that the renewables transition would lead to “blackouts and brownouts and an unreliable energy grid.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.