RICHMOND, Va. — Republican Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin has tapped a former coal lobbyist and Trump administration Environmental Protection Agency chief to join his cabinet in a role overseeing the state's environmental policy.
Andrew Wheeler is Youngkin's pick for secretary of natural resources, the transition announced Wednesday, sparking immediate criticism from Democrats and environmental groups, who accused Wheeler of downplaying the urgent threats of climate change.
Youngkin also announced that he has chosen Michael Rolband, the founder of a natural and historic resources consulting firm, as the head of the Department of Environmental Quality, which handles environmental permitting, monitoring and inspections.
"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. 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," Youngkin said in a statement.
Some Democrats and environmentalists said Wheeler should not be confirmed.
"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 Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.
Cabinet secretaries are subject to approval by the General Assembly, which will be under split party control when it convenes next week. The rejection of nominees is rare but not unprecedented.
The position involves overseeing such policy topics as conservation, climate change and Chesapeake Bay restoration and agencies including the DEQ, the Department of Wildlife Resources and the Department of Historic Resources.
Wheeler worked at the EPA early in his career, in the Pollution Prevention and Toxics office. He then worked from 1995 to 2009 as a staffer for Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, a fervent denier of man-made climate change, and then for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, before becoming a lobbyist.
His client list included Murray Energy, one of the nation's largest coal mining companies.
He took over the EPA job after President Donald Trump accepted the resignation of embattled administrator Scott Pruitt, who had been dogged by scandals that spawned federal and congressional investigations.
During Wheeler's time in the EPA's top job, the Trump administration ordered a sweeping about-face on Obama-era efforts to fight climate change, moving to ease restrictions on coal-fired power plants.
In November, Youngkin announced that Wheeler would be part of a work group focused on the secretariat helping guide the transition.
While energy policy was not a key focus of last year's gubernatorial race, Youngkin has promised to be a champion of an all-of-the-above energy strategy, including support for what he has called "clean-burning" fossil fuels. In order to stave off the worst effects of climate change, scientists have called for a rapid transition away from fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
During a campaign forum, Youngkin said he was unsure what is responsible for climate change, despite the fact that overwhelming scientific evidence shows global warming and climate change are caused by human behavior, including carbon dioxide emissions. Youngkin went on to say climate change was a challenge facing Virginia that he would work to address.
Also Wednesday, Youngkin announced his pick for secretary of administration, Margaret "Lyn" McDemid, a former longtime employee of the Federal Reserve System, who served there as chief information officer and director of Federal Reserve information technology.
Youngkin will be sworn in Jan. 15.