EPA's Wheeler continues frequent meetings with industry his agency regulates

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks to staff at the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters on July 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Wheeler will replace Scott Pruitt who resigned last week. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

(CNN)The Environmental Protection Agency's acting administrator Andrew Wheeler has maintained the custom of his predecessor Scott Pruitt of meeting with far more industry executives and lobbyists than environmental groups.

Wheeler held or attended more than 50 meetings with representatives of companies or industry groups regulated by the EPA between April and August of last year, including a company he previously lobbied for, a CNN review of his internal schedules found. He met with three nonprofit environmental groups during that time.
The Senate confirmed Wheeler as the EPA's second-in-command in April, but he took over as the agency's acting head after Pruitt resigned in July amidst ethics controversies. President Trump has since nominated Wheeler to serve as the EPA's permanent administrator, and now he awaits the Senate's approval.
The meetings with industry representatives represent only a fraction of Wheeler's total meetings during that time. His calendar also shows a variety of talks with federal, state and local government officials, journalists and some political groups.
    But Elena Saxonhouse, an attorney with the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group that obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request, said in a statement to CNN the schedules show "just how cozy Wheeler and his deputies are with the polluters they are supposed to be protecting American families from."
    Wheeler's calendars show he held meetings with lobbyists or executives from companies such as oil giant BP, electricity company Duke Energy, agriculture corporation Monsanto, petroleum refiner HollyFrontier and others.
    In July and August, his schedules listed three separate talks with Chet Thompson, the president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers.
    A description for a breakfast in May with another group, the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents offshore energy firms, noted that any talks between Wheeler and other attendees would be "very informal and conversational, and strictly off‐the‐record," according to the records.
    A spokesman for the EPA, Michael Abboud, said in a statement, "Acting Administrator Wheeler has met with a diverse range of stakeholder groups during his tenure at EPA that include the regulated community, local governments, and NGOs. Acting Administrator Wheeler is happy to meet with those who actually request meetings."
    Wheeler's calendars also listed a "meet and greet" in June with an executive from biodiesal maker Darling Ingredients, which Wheeler lobbied for in 2015 and 2016 on issues including renewable-fuel tax incentives. Lobbying disclosures show the company paid the firm Wheeler worked for then, Faegre Baker Daniels, $370,000 during those years.
    A spokesperson for Darling Ingredients, Melissa Gaither, said the meeting with Wheeler in June involved discussion of diesel requirements under the US renewable fuel standard but that the meeting was "informational only." Gaither added that the meeting occurred when Wheeler was still deputy administrator.
    The three non-governmental environmental groups that Wheeler's schedules included are National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
    Wheeler's predecessor Pruitt also met frequently with industry representatives. A CNN review in 2017 found that less than 1 percent of Pruitt's meetings were with environmental groups, and in July CNN reported that Pruitt's public calendar omitted more than two dozen meetings, events or calls that were recorded in his internal schedules, some of which included talks with industry executives and attorneys.
    As head of the EPA, Wheeler serves as a one of the main drivers of the Trump administration's broader deregulation agenda.
    In August, under Wheeler, the EPA published the "Affordable Clean Energy" plan, which sets far less stringent emission guidelines than the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, and in September, the EPA published a proposed rule weakening methane emission standards for some oil and gas production.
    Before he joined the Trump administration's EPA, Wheeler lobbied for energy, mining and coal companies. Earlier in his career, Wheeler served as chief counsel and staff director for Sen. James Inhofe, an outspoken climate change skeptic.
      When asked at his confirmation hearing in January what he thought of climate change, Wheeler responded, "I would not call it the greatest crisis," but he added, "I consider it a huge issue that has to be addressed globally."
      At the hearing, Wheeler also touted the reforms the EPA has implemented under Trump as proof "that burdensome federal regulations are not necessary to drive environmental progress."