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View from Washington: No change of climate at the EPA

Image credit: Alamy

Trump’s widely reviled environmental chief is gone, but the policies remain the same.

Back in Blighty, you might be thinking that Scott Pruitt’s forced resignation as head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will lead President Donald Trump’s administration to rethink its position on climate change. After all, Pruitt was one of the most vocal Cabinet members in convincing his boss to repudiate the Paris agreement, despite counter-lobbying from Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Well, sorry folks, but no.

Instead, Trump’s agenda is set to accelerate. Pruitt’s likely replacement, his former deputy Andrew Wheeler, has already moved up as acting administrator and is expected to encounter little opposition during a formal Senate confirmation. He was confirmed as deputy administrator in a 53-45 vote as recently as April and Wheeler has been touted since then as the backstop should Pruitt’s behaviour force him out of office.

Unlike his former boss, Wheeler is a Washington insider. He has served at the EPA before. He was an aide to Republican Senator James Inhofe, a long-standing opponent of climate change theory. His more recently lobbying career includes such clients as Murray Energy, a leading US coal-mining company.

Pruitt arrived in DC green as a former attorney general for Oklahoma. He had a record of having launched multiple lawsuits against the EPA that endeared him to Trump. He understood that his stance on climate change and general enthusiasm for environmental deregulation made his new job a lightning rod (famously, he vastly expanded his security cover).

He did not realise - until it was too late - that in Washington your extravagance is often far more effective at causing your downfall than your ideology.

Wheeler is all too aware of that. He will not get caught – you might want to take a deep breath here – egregiously overdoing the first-class travel; lobbying for his wife to be awarded a fast-food franchise on an official call; installing a soundproofed phone booth in his office; giving way-above-market pay rises to his personal appointees; having his driver flip on the SUV’s siren and flashing lights to get to a French restaurant; taking a sweetheart deal on a Washington rental from an energy lobbyist, or requiring senior officials to house-hunt something more permanent for him (and this is not even the full list of Pruitt’s transgressions).

However, Wheeler is a ‘believer’ - or should that be ‘unbeliever’? Either way, he is also set to inherit an EPA where Pruitt has done much of the ‘dirty work’.

Staff have been cut to a level unseen since the 1980s. Many academics who sat on major committees have been replaced by industry executives. A swathe of Obama-era regulation has been, or is well on the way to being, reversed.

Notwithstanding – though it’s less likely than you might think – a Democratic landslide giving that party control of the Senate and the House of Representatives in November’s mid-terms, Wheeler’s role will be more about shepherding through an established agenda than adding controversies to it. It is now a wheel-greasing job for which he is obviously well equipped.

So, the US scientific community is still angry, but arguably more resigned than before. Pruitt’s name may be mud mostly wherever the scientific method is held dear. He may have tried to enforce a diktat whereby the words ‘climate’ and ‘change’ could not be mentioned together by the EPA. He may have had peer-reviewed research papers on the topic removed from the EPA’s web site, or at least the more obvious links to them.

However, none of that got him sacked. Rather, it cemented Pruitt’s position as a key Trump ally, defended until now by the President, even though concerns about his probity date back almost to his first day in office. Persistently behaving like a dick is what got him sacked.

By contrast, Andrew Wheeler is not a dick. Ironically, Trump has responded to Scottgate by doing something atypical and nigh-on presidential. He’s appointed a politically savvy, highly experienced operator to a senior Cabinet position.

So it goes.

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