02:38 - Source: CNN
Ex-coal lobbyist takes over for Pruitt at EPA
CNN  — 

One of the energy companies that the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency worked for as a lobbyist is seeking contracts from the agency, raising questions among environmentalists about whether he can put his past behind him as he becomes the nation’s top environmental protector.

Since 2009, Andrew Wheeler – who was announced as the acting leader of the EPA after Scott Pruitt resigned Thursday – has lobbied for at least 17 companies, including Energy Fuels Inc., the largest supplier of uranium in the US. Wheeler’s other clients ranged from companies providing coal, gas and nuclear energy to a mix of clients in the auto and food industries.

As Wheeler prepares to take charge of EPA, the company he once lobbied for is trying to win contracts to clean up abandoned uranium mines, according to EFI’s website and its CEO, Mark Chalmers.

Chalmers recently told investors the company is “lobbying very heavily” to get the contracts to help clean up depleted uranium mines on lands in the Four Corners area, including property owned by the Navajo Nation. There are more than 500 abandoned mines, some of which are already part of the EPA’s Superfund program. EFI is well situated to do the cleanups as it has the only mill in the area and routinely processes uranium there, he said.

Chalmers told CNN their proposal to the EPA is in its early stages, and in a statement said, “We offer the EPA an established, low-cost option to move material off the Navajo Nation, recycle it into fuel for carbon-free nuclear energy, and dispose of the remnants in existing state-of-the-art facilities. Our understanding is that Mr. Wheeler will not be involved in any decision on this Energy Fuels proposal.”

EFI’s activities – and Wheeler’s connections to the company – worry environmentalists, who aren’t thrilled to see a former energy lobbyist take over as the nation’s new top environmental cop.

“We see Mr. Wheeler as fitting a very typical pattern of behavior,” said Chris Saeger, of the Western Values Project. “He started off in the Senate, then went to a lobbying firm. Now he will be at a very high-ranking position at the EPA, where he will be in a position to make lots of decisions that could benefit his former clients. That’s a disturbing pattern that I think is very common to natural resources management in general in the Trump administration.”

Wheeler declined an interview with CNN, instead offering a statement defending his ethics record.

“Under my ethics agreement with the Agency, I will have no involvement with EFI for two years,” he said in the statement offered by the agency.

“Directly following the 2016 election, I voluntarily stopped any advocacy activity with EPA under the anticipation that I might be considered for a position at the Agency,” Wheeler added.

But that doesn’t mean Wheeler wasn’t lobbying other parts of the Trump administration following the election.

In 2017, EFI, along with other companies, sought to shrink the size of Bears Ears National Monument, which was designated as protected land under the Obama administration in 2016. Bears Ears threatened to impede an important transport road for EFI and the company feared it could hinder its operations, according to an SEC filing and a letter Chalmers sent to the Department of Interior.

As a lobbyist for EFI, Wheeler was present at a meeting he helped arrange in July 2017 with officials from the Department of Interior, according to emails obtained by the Sierra Club through the Freedom of Information Act, and confirmed by Wheeler to CNN. Wheeler’s and others’ lobbying efforts worked: Late last year, President Donald Trump traveled to Utah to officially announce the reduction of Bears Ears. The decision was seen as a victory for EFI and other companies.

While Wheeler did not lobby the EPA while he was under consideration for a job at the agency, his lobbying firm’s colleagues did.

An internal EPA email shows that the same month Wheeler was lobbying the Interior Department to shrink Bears Ears, his lobbying colleagues at Faegre-Baker-Daniels were over at the EPA discussing abandoned uranium mines and their cleanup contracts.

Critics had charged that Wheeler’s recent work as an industry lobbyist made him unfit for the job as second in command at an agency that has regulatory oversight and authority over the very industries for which he lobbied.

Wheeler left a position as a top aide in the Senate nearly a decade ago to become a successful lobbyist for the energy industry. His main client was the largest coal producer in the US.

He has long been a harsh critic of climate change science. And while in the Senate, he worked for Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who’s a major climate change skeptic and who told CNN last year the EPA is “brainwashing our kids.”

This spring the Senate confirmed Wheeler to become deputy director of the EPA.

Pruitt defended his pick for deputy at the time. When Wheeler was confirmed, Pruitt praised him in a statement, writing, “Andrew Wheeler has spent his entire career advancing sound environmental policies and I look forward to him bringing his expertise and leadership to the agency.”

CNN’s Curt Devine and Aaron Kessler contributed to this report.

This story has been updated to accurately name one of the companies for which Wheeler has lobbied.