It’s official: Alumni of the best-known climate skeptic in Congress are leading EPA.
Former aides to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) have helped shape President Trump’s energy policy agenda since even before he was elected. Many of them quickly landed top spots at EPA and in the White House, and Inhofe alumnus Ryan Jackson helped shepherd Scott Pruitt through the confirmation process before becoming his chief of staff at the agency last year.
But now an ex-Inhofe staffer is taking the reins as Pruitt leaves under a cloud of controversies.
Andrew Wheeler, who steps in as EPA’s chief on Monday, was staff director and chief counsel to Inhofe on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for much of the George W. Bush administration.
Jackson, a longtime friend of Wheeler, is expected to remain as EPA’s chief of staff after Pruitt’s exit. Jackson — a native Oklahoman — was an Inhofe aide who worked as EPW staff director and Inhofe’s chief of staff.
Brittany Bolen became the acting head of EPA’s policy shop after Samantha Dravis left earlier this year. Bolen was Republican counsel to Inhofe on the EPW Committee. Daisy Letendre, a communications adviser in the policy office, was Inhofe’s communications director.
And former Inhofe counsel Mandy Gunasekara is now principal deputy assistant administrator in EPA’s air office.
Republicans and some energy industry lobbyists say Inhofe’s alumni network brings deep policy knowledge to EPA and is well-positioned to bring calm to an agency that has been mired in controversies under Pruitt.
"With these Inhofe staff, you get all of the Pruitt policy and none of the Pruitt baggage," said an energy lobbyist and former congressional staffer.
It makes sense that ex-Inhofe aides would populate EPA under a Republican administration, the lobbyist said, given Inhofe’s long tenure as the top Republican on the Senate committee charged with overseeing the agency. "He has hired a lot of smart people to work for him who were good and have gone on to do various other things," the lobbyist said.
Those staffers have a history of working closely with Democrats on Capitol Hill, that person added: "I think that the Democrat staff and members believe that Inhofe and the Inhofe staffers treated them fairly when they were up there."
They also share an appreciation for process, said Matt Dempsey, Inhofe’s former communications director.
He expects his former colleagues to take a "back to basics" approach at EPA. "It’s not necessarily a political agenda, but it’s a policy-based agenda," he said.
That contrasts with how many people viewed Pruitt, who was widely thought to be trying to use EPA as a stepping stool to reach higher political office.
Under Wheeler, "the whole tone is going to be different," the energy lobbyist said. "People are going to perceive that Andy is going to spend his time on policy and not thinking about whether he’s the next senator from Oklahoma."
But as Republicans and many in industry are celebrating the rise of the Inhofe crowd at EPA, some on the left are furious that disciples of the Senate’s most vocal climate change skeptic — famous for throwing a snowball on the Senate floor to try to disprove global warming — are leading the agency tasked with protecting the environment.
"It is a brave new world of pro-fossil-fuel ideologues who seem not to care about anything but industry profits, the rest of the country be damned," said Bill Snape, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "We’re all getting hit in the head by the snowball at this point. It’s obviously disturbing."