Brian Glaviano/Case Western Reserve University School of Law
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler walked up to the podium at George Gund Hall to address the inaugural symposium for the Case Western Reserve University Coleman P. Burke Center for Environmental Law on Friday, Oct. 18. His speech was meant to honor the upcoming 50th anniversary of the EPA, a department partially created after the Cuyahoga River, 15 minutes away from where he stood, caught fire.
Wheeler earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and biology from CWRU in 1987. However, he was not met with open arms by the student body that roams the same streets and quads that he once did.
At 7:30 a.m., as the sun rose over the horizon, a group of students and faculty gathered outside the law school to protest Wheeler’s attendance at the symposium. Chants of “Let the earth be heard!” and “Whose future? Our future!” erupted from the crowd.
The students argued that Wheeler ignores the responsibility of the EPA to prevent environmental disasters, like the fire that created the agency in the first place.
“We think they should be pursuing policies that mitigate climate change; currently, they are not focusing on climate change at all. Wheeler himself has said that it’s not a pressing issue. He has appointed people in positions of power who are not in favor of climate change policies,” said first-year student Lily Kwiatkowski, the organizer of the protest. “We need preventive measures not reactive measures.”
During the keynote address on campus, physics graduate student Milo Korman disrupted Wheeler’s speech, protesting Wheeler’s history as a lobbyist, his pro-extraction policies and lack of action on climate change. Korman said that progress on the science needs to be made and that Wheeler’s deregulation and unwillingness to make climate change a focus is harmful to that progress.
“I thought it would be a shame if he was able to give his speech without any sort of visible mark of someone objecting to it,” said Korman. “It was not about stopping him. It was more about getting it on the record that someone objected to him.”
Kwiatkowski said many of the protesters were appalled that CWRU invited Wheeler to speak, considering his policies. CWRU professor David Kaplan wrote an op-ed to Cleveland.com, arguing that Wheeler should have defended his positions in a panel discussion with other thinkers instead of speaking in a keynote.
However, Jonathan Adler, the director of the center for environmental law, argued that having Wheeler participate in a panel wouldn’t have made sense since Wheeler was not speaking in an academic capacity and the academics were there to present scholarly work. Adler said he thought Wheeler’s participation enhanced the symposium and said he would invite him again during another appropriate occasion.
“Individuals who oversee federal agencies and the implementation and enforcement of federal laws are often able to provide valuable insight and perspective on how a given agency is being run and the agency’s regulatory and enforcement priorities—and Administrator Wheeler did just that, both during his remarks and in response to questions,” said Adler.
Wheeler is not a complete climate science denier. He admits that greenhouse gas emissions are an issue, but he does not see them as an existential threat. However, the secretary general of the UN argues that if action is not taken within the next 11 years, the risk of extreme weather will increase exponentially. Wheeler has worked with science deniers in the past—most notably Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma senator infamous for bringing a snowball on to the Senate floor as evidence that climate science showing marking 2014 as one of the warmest years on record shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Wheeler worked for Inhofe for 14 years, serving as his chief counsel. Inhofe introduced Wheeler at his EPA Administrator confirmation hearing.
“I have confidence he will continue to advance a deregulatory agenda that protects the environment without placing needless burdens on job creators,” said Inhofe in a statement after Wheeler was announced as administrator.
Donald Trump, the president who gave Wheeler his cabinet position, has claimed that climate change is a hoax. Trump is pushing a deregulatory agenda, creating an executive order that called for federal agencies to repeal two old regulations for every new one.
Wheeler said one of the reasons he is not taking great action on climate change is because he believes that the technology needed to move the country to a renewable energy-based grid is not there yet.
“If we are going to make huge changes on climate change, it’s going to have to be in the development of technologies such as energy storage batteries. We’re probably on second or third generation now; we need tenth generation battery storage,” said Wheeler in an interview with The Observer. “When we produce solar or wind we have to basically use it when it’s produced. We don’t have long-term storage for those fuels. Renewable fuels are never going to be able to provide baseload generation until we have the battery storage issue figured out.”
Tish O’Dell, a community organizer with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, said that a more decentralized power grid, with municipalities, households and businesses creating more of their own electricity through solar panels and other means could make storage less of an issue.
Wheeler believes that the free market and improving technology will be what fixes climate change. He cited how the U.S. has seen a 13 percent reduction in carbon dioxide since 2005, because of advancements in power plant technology and natural gas production replacing coal-based power plants. Wheeler’s data includes the Obama administration, whose regulations Wheeler’s EPA has rolled back. Carbon emissions increased by 3.4 percent in 2018, according to a study by Rhodium Group. Wheeler said that exporting the innovations made here in the U.S. will clean up other countries’ power systems and that current U.S. energy policy is sufficient because technology will eventually catch up.
However, the scientific community believes that incremental progress is not enough to solve the problem of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that limiting warming to under 1.5 degrees Celsius would require “unprecedented changes,” and that the world only has 11 years to act before a great increase in the risk of droughts, floods and extreme heat occurs as a result from the status quo.
A major concern is Wheeler’s past lobbying work at Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting. He represented coal company Murray Energy, one of the largest coal producers in the United States.
Wheeler insisted that CEO Robert Murray, a big donor for Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, was just one of the many clients he had as a lobbyist.
“I represented over 20 different companies when I was a lobbyist,” said Wheeler. “I represented the nuclear industry, I represented an air quality management district in California, I represented a solar company, I represented a cheese company, but the one company they all point to is the coal company.”
Wheeler’s association with the coal industry was more than the casual one he depicted when speaking with The Observer. He served as the president of the Washington Coal Club in 2016, according to the group’s tax filings. He has also come under fire for meeting with three of his former lobbying clients, Darling Ingredients, a biodiesel firm, the South Coast Airquality Management District and Archer Daniels Midland company.
These meetings came in spite of Wheeler’s promise not to meet with former lobbying clients until 2020.
“It’s like a revolving door,” said O’Dell, who has spoken at CWRU about environmental issues as part of Social Justice Institute Teach-Ins. “People who are in government go back and forth from representing corporate interests as lobbyists and then getting appointed to lead protection agencies. They are all part of that upper echelon protecting the power and wealth.”
According to The New York Times, the EPA has rolled back 85 different pieces of environmental legislation since Trump’s election.
Wheeler has introduced new environmental regulations, mainly focusing on drinking water quality. Wheeler introduced the first national action plan on PFAS chemicals, a class of chemicals commonly used in stain repellents and coatings. He also changed the EPA’s Lead and Copper rule, implementing stricter rules on lead testing and pipe replacement.
Some community activists like O’Dell feel the law does not go far enough, arguing that there should be no acceptable level of lead in water, since it is a poison. Wheeler argued that moving down to a zero tolerance system would help wealthy communities to the detriment of poor ones.
“We tightened how the water systems can measure and we also put the requirement in that when they find it, when [lead levels] are above 15 [ppb], [the line] needs to be replaced,” said Wheeler. “We could have lowered it to zero, but my concern would be that we wouldn’t be focusing on the most at risk communities. When the career staff first briefed me on this rule last fall, I actually sent it back to the drawing board. It’s going to take us 20-30 years to replace all the lead service lines in the country, my concern would be that we would replace the pipes in the most affluent neighborhoods first and not necessarily the most corrosive ones. Fifteen is a good marker for what is corrosive. We want to make sure we replace the ones that are 15 and above first and then replace the rest over time.”
Wheeler said the organization is having to learn how to do more with less. There are only 14,172 employees at the EPA today compared to more than 18,000 two decades ago, a reduction that has stretched the agency thin.
Additionally, the inability of Congress to act on greenhouse gas legislation has made creating regulations difficult. Several high-profile lawsuits and supreme court rulings have weakened the ability of the EPA to regulate companies. One of the reasons Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) was rolled back by Wheeler’s EPA is because a lawsuit by 27 U.S. states argued that the plan overstepped the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act. Because of the lawsuit, the Supreme Court placed a stay on the legislation, so it never went into effect. Wheeler replaced the CPP with the Affordable Clean Energy Rule (ACE). The law would reduce carbon emissions by 11 million short tons compared to a no-CPP baseline in 2030 according to the EPA, but that pales in comparison to the CPP’s projected cut of 870 million tons of emissions in 2030.
“On the ACE rule, when we did that I got beat up on the left a lot very openly in public, senators congressman, environmental groups saying we weren’t doing enough. What we did under the ACE rule is follow the Clean Air Act and the Supreme Court cases,” said Wheeler. “The Clean Power Act was stayed by the Supreme Court in my opinion because it went outside the Clean Air Act. I also got beat up by the right. I got phone calls from members of congress saying why are you doing anything. You should be overturning the endangerment finding, you shouldn’t be doing anything on climate change. That’s not what the Supreme Court has told us to do and not what the clean air act has told us to do. We are extremely limited by the clean air act in what we can do on CO2. John Dingell (former Chair of House Energy and Commerce Committee) said it would be a glorious mess to regulate CO2 under the clean air act and I think he was right, it has been a glorious mess.”
Wheeler said he does not think either party is willing to address climate change through legislation.
The Director of the CWRU Environmental Science Program Peter McCall said the CPP is an enforcement of the Clean Air Act, based on a court decision that said the EPA can regulate greenhouse gas emissions since they are considered a public health risk.
“Faced with the necessity of doing something by the CAA, [the EPA] rescinded the CPP and substituted [it] this summer a new rule with the Orwellian title, the Affordable Clean Energy rule,” said McCall. “The rule will not result in clean power anywhere near that contemplated by the CPP, and is affordable only where [the] costs and benefits are carefully selected to produce the desired result.”
When Wheeler attended CWRU as an undergraduate student, he wrote an opinion piece titled “Animals are not guinea pigs” in 1987. He argued against animal testing, stating that it is inhumane and unnecessary because of in-vitro fertilization and other alternatives.
Wheeler has pledged to reduce EPA requests and funding for animal testing on mammals by 30% by 2025 and eliminate it entirely by 2035. There are concerns within the scientific community that toxicity reports will be difficult to complete without the use of lab animals. Scott Gottlieb of the Food and Drug Administration has said that without animal research, it would be impossible to gain important knowledge on many life threatening diseases.
McCall said that the new rules on animal research can be squared with the administration’s goals to deregulate industry, advocate for the fossil fuel industry and downplaying climate change.
“People are suspicious given his antipathy to controlling global warming, which will result in misery for all manner of animal life, and lack of much action to lessen the much greater suffering experienced by the 10 billion animals in factory farms,” said McCall. “I take him at his word that Administrator Wheeler cares about the lives of lab animals. Banning [the] use of vertebrates in toxicity studies may be tolerated by the chemical industry to the extent that it makes banning of some chemicals more difficult or less likely.”
Wheeler did include a measure that ensured that if animal testing is still needed for public health by 2035 the administrator can grant an exemption.
“I worked at biology labs all four years I was here at Case,” said Wheeler. “I just think there are scientific advancements we aren’t taking advantage of. I wrote that op-ed where I called for more in-vitro testing and computer modeling, and not a whole lot has changed in that 35 years since I wrote that op-ed. Some animal testing has been reduced, but not to the level I thought it would be. I have to admit I took advantage of being the administrator of the EPA to try to move this forward. It’s interesting, I’ve gotten a lot of praise from the animal welfare groups and some criticism from scientific groups, that it’s impossible to meet, but it’s an aspirational goal. If we don’t set a goal we’ll never achieve it.”
On the issue of animal testing, Wheeler is willing to push the country forward and take risks. Yet on climate change, an issue considered by the UN to be an existential threat, he is not publicly calling for policies that create massive change in greenhouse gas emissions.
For the last sentence of “Animals are not guinea pigs,” Wheeler wrote, “It is up to us to determine the future of animals.”
Wheeler now has the power to help determine that future. However, Wheeler did not mention climate change once in his keynote speech, even though McCall and other scientists have said the crisis will create great suffering for many of the same animals that Wheeler wants to save through his regulations on animal testing. Though taking action might be politically difficult, to quote Wheeler, “If we don’t set a goal, we’ll never achieve it.”