WASHINGTON – Environmental Protection Agency Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler told agency employees Wednesday that he would value their input even as he would seek to advance President Donald Trump's agenda, saying, "When it comes to leadership, you can't lead unless you listen."
"Just like me, you came to EPA to help the environment," he added at one point.
Speaking before a packed audience in the agency's ornate Rachel Carson Room — named for the iconic American environmentalist — Wheeler touted his time as a career employee at EPA and his coal mining heritage, and he pledged to act differently from his controversial predecessor, Scott Pruitt. He did not mention Pruitt — who resigned Thursday — by name, but implicitly broke with Trump's first EPA pick.
"My instinct will be to defend your work, and I will seek the facts from you before reaching conclusions," he said, noting at one point that when it comes to leadership transitions at the EPA, "I understand how stressful that can be."
The former coal lobbyist and Senate staffer made it clear that he would pursue the same policy priorities as Pruitt, and did not utter the phrase "climate change" once.
"We will continue to build on these accomplishments" achieved since Trump took office in January 2017, Wheeler said, adding that the president gave him a clear sense of what he expected when the two men spoke by phone on Thursday. "He said, 'Clean up the air, clean up the water and provide regulatory relief.' I think we can do all of those things at the same time," Wheeler said.
Even as Wheeler has promised to move forward with the regulatory rollbacks that Pruitt began and to follow through on Trump's promises to make the EPA smaller and more industry-friendly, he vowed on Wednesday to be more transparent about his actions than his predecessor. He said he planned to visit all of the EPA's regional offices "as soon as possible," and would take questions from employees during those visits.
There are early signs he means it. Pruitt rarely publicized where he was traveling and only began releasing his public calendars after the agency faced lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act. Wheeler's online calendar, by contrast, was current through Tuesday. Pruitt had the doors to his third-floor office suite closed and installed biometric locks. Wheeler has ordered that the administrator's office area be reopened to employees.
Wheeler addressed employees from the same space where Pruitt had stood 16 months earlier on his first full day as EPA administrator. That day, the former Oklahoma attorney general detailed how the agency under his watch would adhere strictly to the authority granted by Congress and cede more responsibility to individual states.
Many months before the scandals that would force him from office, Pruitt also spoke that day of the need for civility. "In this environment we live in this country today … it's a very toxic environment," Pruitt said. "We have jerseys that we put on both politically and otherwise. And that's something, I think, is damaging to finding results and answers."
The tone of Wednesday's speech was markedly different. Career employees filled up the front seats at Wheeler's speech — and gave him a rousing round of applause both before and after its conclusion.
Still, some EPA employees greeted his remarks with skepticism. Denise Morrison — the acting president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, representing more than 8,000 EPA workers nationwide — called Wheeler's speech "simply a superficial attempt to plug the leaks and quell the dissent. A successful coal lobbyist doesn't change his stripes. He will continue to champion deregulation and permit big polluters to evade compliance altogether."
At least some EPA career employees who attended Wednesday's speech, on the other hand, seemed thankful for Wheeler's attempts to make clear he values their work.
"I'm very optimistic," said Tamue Gibson, an EPA biologist, saying like others she is "waiting to see" how Wheeler leads, but glad that he spent time as a career employee himself.
"At least he knows about how America needs us," she said. "At least he knows people around the world count on us."