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Trump EPA Chief Lays Out Vision for Agency Critics Warn Would Create 'Apocalyptic, Devastated Planet'

The agency chief suggested reigning in fossil fuel use will not help communities harmed by fossil fuel pollution.

President Donald Trump looks on as EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks during an event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on January 9, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

President Donald Trump looks on as EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks during an event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on January 9, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler is under fire for a Thursday speech laying out a vision for the agency that critics warn would unleash untold environmental devastation should it come to pass.

Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, delivered the remarks at the Nixon Library in southern California to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the EPA. The agency was established under the Nixon administration.  

"If Wheeler's vision becomes real in the decades ahead, our children and grandchildren would inherit nothing less than an apocalyptic, devastated planet."
—Brett Hartl, Center for Biological Diversity
In the speech, Wheeler knocked state efforts to pursue renewable energy over fossil fuels and block new gas infrastructure projects.

Wheeler also framed as positive steps the administration's environmental protection rollbacks and attacks on science. The EPA chief said that "members of former administrations and progressives in Congress have elevated single issue advocacy—in many cases focused just on climate change—to virtue-signal to foreign capitals, over the interests of communities within their own country."

"Communities that deal with the worst pollution in this country—and tend to be low-income and minority—face multiple environmental problems that need solving," Wheeler said. He suggested President Donald Trump's "opportunity zones" plan—recognized by experts as a giveaway to the rich—as a remedy to environmental injustice.

 Wheeler declared it "very disappointing to see governors on the East Coast, such as [New York] Governor Cuomo, unilaterally block pipelines that would take natural gas from Pennsylvania to New York and New England."

"We helped President Trump successfully implement the new NEPA regulations with the goal of reviewing federal permits within two years," Wheeler said of the administration's attack on the bedrock environmental law.

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He also touted "a proposed rule that would remove onerous and expensive regulation of gene-edited plant protectants" and the administration's "science transparency rules," referring to what its critics call a "secret science rule" to limit scientific evidence the EPA will consider in its work.

Mustafa Santiago Ali, a former EPA official who helped found the agency's environmental justice office, took issue with Wheeler's plans for environmental justice.

"Every one of the actions the Trump administration has taken, either by weakening or rolling back basic air and water protections, has put #environmentaljustice communities in greater harm," he tweeted Thursday. "No one believes a Trump second term would value Black and Brown lives!" he added.

Brett Hartl, government affairs director at conservation group Center for Biological Diversity, rebuffed Wheeler's claim that the Trump administration has been a champion of EPA's mission.

"Wheeler and the Trump administration have done grave and lasting damage to the EPA by elevating polluters and their profits above all else, and no slick speech can change that fact," said Hartl. He further accused Wheeler of being "ignorant of the immense environmental progress made over the last 50 years because Congress and President Nixon recognized when they established the EPA that no one has a right to pollute our air, water, or land."

"If Wheeler's vision becomes real in the decades ahead," warned Hartl, "our children and grandchildren would inherit nothing less than an apocalyptic, devastated planet."

Hartl continued: "Instead of following the proud bipartisan traditions of the EPA, Wheeler has decimated protections for our nations wetlands and rivers, rolled back protections for toxic pollutants spewed into the air, rubberstamped pesticides that cause brain damage in children, and utterly ignored the climate crisis. He is a horror-show, through and through."

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