Virginia’s incoming Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has stirred controversy with his nomination of Andrew Wheeler, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief under President Donald Trump, as secretary of natural resources.
Wheeler, a one-time coal industry lobbyist who led the agency in the second half of the prior administration, stated during his 2019 confirmation hearings a belief that climate change is both real and influenced by human activity.
But his tenure at EPA's helm included weakening several Obama-era initiatives aimed at reducing coal plant emissions and boosting automobile fuel efficiency, as well as a controversial redefinition of waterways governed by the federal Clean Water Act.
Wheeler also de-emphasized the role of science in shaping agency policy, eliminating EPA’s Science Advisor office and filling several advisory panels with participants considered more friendly to industry interests.
“Wheeler did nothing more than cater to corporate polluter interests time and time again, putting their welfare ahead of our environment and Americans’ health,” Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement. “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.”
During his successful campaign against former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), Youngkin gave few clues about his environmental views, aside from criticizing Virginia’s 2020 Clean Economy Act, which sets an aggressive agenda for developing renewable energy and shuttering fossil fuel power plants. Last month, he announced plans to withdraw from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative—a carbon cap-and-trade market among states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
Youngkin, who takes office Jan. 15, said in a statement announcing Wheeler’s nomination that “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.”
He said his adiministration "will address Virginia’s ongoing environmental, energy, and natural resources challenges, including protecting the Chesapeake Bay, fully funding our best management practices, solving longstanding stormwater management issues, and establishing a Coastal Virginia Resiliency Authority.”
While Virginia’s General Assembly generally endorses cabinet choices by incoming governors, Wheeler likely faces a difficult road to confirmation. The November 2020 election gave Republicans a slim majority in the House of Delegates while Democrats hold a similarly small edge in the state Senate.
Reaction to Wheeler’s nomination among state legislators predictably fell along party lines. State Sen. Richard H. Stuart (R), who worked with Wheeler on Youngkin’s transition team, called him “highly qualified and very competent.”
Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax), noting the relatively slow pace of Youngkin cabinet appointments, said Wheeler had been scraped “from the bottom of the barrel,” and that “he cannot be confirmed.”
Youngkin also nominated Michael Rolband, founder of a natural and historic resources consulting firm, to head the state’s Dept. of Environmental Quality,