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Conservationists slam Va. Gov.-elect's nominee for top environmental job

Youngkin touts Trump EPA chief and former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler for Secretary of Natural Resources.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Activists in Virginia are trying to derail Governor-elect Youngkin’s nomination of a former coal lobbyist to the Commonwealth’s top environmental protection job.

Andrew Wheeler, the Trump Administration EPA head, is Youngkin’s nominee for Secretary of Natural Resources.

"I’m not at all ashamed of the work I did for the coal company," Wheeler said in a speech as EPA Administrator.

The governor-elect called Wheeler an “Eagle Scout” who has “dedicated his career to advancing sound environmental policies.”

Wheeler said deregulation under the Trump Administration produced more jobs and protected the environment. 

"Under President Trump, the water we drink and the air we breathe are at the cleanest levels since modern measurement began," he said in 2020.

But critics call Wheeler an environmental disaster.

"This is a guy that presided over 1,000 people leaving the EPA, had conflicts of interest. He was responsible for helping to undo something like 148 different environmental regulations that were in place," said Rep. Don Beyer, (D-Virginia).

Virginia’s outgoing Democratic Attorney General named Wheeler as a defendant in at least six lawsuits: Accusing the Trump EPA of failing to protect the Chesapeake Bay; rolling back clean car standards; abandoning enforcement of environmental protection laws; blocking state climate change policy; allowing more mercury in the air, and enacting a “Dirty Power Rule.”

“We have ended the war on beautiful clean coal,” former President Trump said in a State of the Union speech to Congress.

A Youngkin spokesman declined to comment on the Wheeler blowback. And Wheeler himself has not returned our phone call.

"Any Republican that's representing as sort of suburban moderate seats, for example, in Hampton Roads or some other area that's affected by climate change, is going to have serious have to think very carefully about where they want to vote for somebody like this," said State Sen. Scott Surovell, (D-Fairfax).

The Sierra Club is urging the governor-elect to change his mind. 

“This is a great opportunity for him to show that you can be a governor for all Virginians by withdrawing a nomination for Andrew Wheeler,” said Tim Cywinski, a spokesman for the Virginia chapter of the environmental group.

To become Secretary of Natural Resources, Wheeler will need to win a majority of votes in both Virginia’s soon-to-be Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Gov. elect Youngkin has also promised to pull Virginia out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. That’s drawn more criticism from environmental groups but his transition team says it would save the average electric ratepayer about $50 a year.

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