Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin on Wednesday named Andrew Wheeler, who rolled back environmental safeguards as head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald Trump, as secretary of natural resources. The choice drew outrage from Democrats and environmental groups.
Youngkin, who takes office on Jan. 15, also announced he wants Michael Rolband, founder of the company Wetland Studies and Solutions Inc., as his choice to head the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which is under the natural resources secretary.
“Andrew and Michael share my vision in finding new ways to innovate and use our natural resources to provide Virginia with a stable, dependable, and growing power supply that will meet Virginia’s power demands without passing the costs on to the consumer,” Youngkin said in a statement.
One Democratic senator, Scott Surovell of Fairfax County, suggested that Republicans should join Democrats in the Senate in killing the nomination, the incoming GOP governor’s first Cabinet pick to draw controversy.
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“First reaction is — it’s an outright oddity to appoint an inside-the-D.C.-Beltway coal lobbyist in a state that produces virtually zero coal,” said Walton Shepherd, a senior staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Virginia.
“Governor-elect Youngkin could accelerate progress on clean air, clean water, clean energy, but this is a ham-handed appointment that only assures he’ll get nothing done. ... It really is over the top.”
Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement: “Youngkin’s pick for Secretary of Natural Resources is simply unacceptable.”
“As head of EPA under former President Trump, Wheeler did nothing more than cater to corporate polluter interests time and time again, putting their welfare ahead of our environment and Americans’ health. 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.”
Surovell tweeted: “I know he’s new to Virginia government and all but @GlennYoungkin does understand cabinet secretaries require General Assembly approval — right?”
In an interview, Surovell noted that three former EPA administrators who served under Republican presidents expressed concerns in 2019 about the agency’s close ties to industry, including Wheeler’s status as a former coal lobbyist in charge of the agency.
“I would hope in Virginia there would be bipartisan opposition to choosing him,” Surovell said.
Kate West, director of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, urged Democrats to block Wheeler if Youngkin does not withdraw the nomination, saying: “A vote for Andrew Wheeler is a vote against Virginians’ clean air, safe drinking water and sustainable energy.”
Democrats hold a 21-19 edge in the state Senate. Republicans will take control of the House on Jan. 12, with a 52-48 edge.
Wheeler is on Youngkin’s natural resources transition committee, which is chaired by Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland.
Stuart said he didn’t know much about Wheeler but found him qualified through their personal interactions in working on the committee.
“He is incredibly competent, smart and very qualified,” Stuart said. “Now, I’ve already heard from some of my Democratic colleagues and friends on the other side of the aisle. But it seems to me their objection is he worked for President Trump. I’d like to hear the objections about his character, qualifications, ability vs. that he was appointed by Trump to the EPA.
“I’m impressed with him. I can’t speak to his background because I really don’t know anything about his background.”
It is rare, but not unprecedented, for the legislature to reject a governor’s appointee.
In 2006, House Republicans rejected Gov. Tim Kaine’s choice of Daniel LeBlanc, former head of the state AFL-CIO, as secretary of the commonwealth. LeBlanc opposed the state’s right-to-work law.
In February 2014, Republicans in the legislature rejected Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s nomination of Boyd Marcus for a spot on the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Marcus, a longtime GOP strategist, worked for Democrat McAuliffe’s campaign in 2013.
Matthew Strickler was the natural resources secretary during most of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s term. Rolband will replace David Paylor as DEQ director.
Environmentalists frequently complained that the DEQ under Paylor was a rubber stamp for permit requests, including from the now-defunct Atlantic Coast Pipeline natural gas project and the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline. Paylor was first appointed to the job in 2006 by Kaine and served under four governors.
Youngkin, in his statement, commended Paylor as an “invaluable public servant” and wished him well.
Rep. Don Beyer, D-8th, was among Democrats upset by the Wheeler announcement.
“Andrew Wheeler is one of the worst people the Governor-elect could have chosen for this job,” Beyer said in a statement.
Wheeler “led the implementation of an EPA dirty air initiative his own agency estimated would lead to 1,400 premature deaths and breathing problems in thousands of people, many of them children. He led the Trump Administration’s efforts to dismantle environmental protections, selling out the American people and the EPA’s very mission to benefit corporate polluters.”
Virginia’s outgoing attorney general, Democrat Mark Herring, joined in at least six lawsuits against the EPA and Wheeler over environmental rollbacks. Those include lawsuits over Chesapeake Bay protections, clean car standards, and a rule that sought to allow power plants to release more mercury and toxins into the air.
The Union of Concerned Scientists in 2019 created a list of “80 Trump administration attacks on science” and called Wheeler a “driving force” behind many.
Youngkin in December announced that he wants to use executive power to withdraw Virginia from a program called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, although it’s unclear if he could legally do that without legislative approval.
Youngkin has said he wants Virginia to fight sea level rise and coastal flooding, but that he finds the Virginia Clean Economy Act “unworkable.” Youngkin has said he wants to “embrace all aspects of power generation,” including wind, solar, nuclear and natural gas.
Staff writer Andrew Cain contributed to this report.