Scott Pruitt is gone. But the big regulatory rollbacks he set in motion at the Environmental Protection Agency are still very much alive.
The E.P.A.’s new acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, will pick up where Mr. Pruitt left off, working to scale back rules on power plant emissions, vehicle standards and water pollution. Environmentalists have already vowed to fight these moves.
In substance, at least, Mr. Wheeler is expected to closely resemble his predecessor, carrying out President Trump’s wishes to dismantle Obama-era climate policy and reorient the E.P.A. in a more industry-friendly direction. But Mr. Wheeler’s low-key style and deep familiarity with Washington — he was an E.P.A. official and a Senate Republican staff member for nearly two decades before becoming an energy lobbyist in 2009 — could make him more effective at deregulation than Mr. Pruitt, observers said.
“Pruitt was certainly interested in the politics of these issues, but he was not always as involved in the policymaking,” said Jeffrey R. Holmstead, a partner at the firm Bracewell and a former E.P.A. air chief. “Whereas Andy understands how to work with E.P.A. staff to get things done. He’s much more interested in the day-to-day work of the agency.”
Here are five big E.P.A. policy battles that lie ahead under Mr. Wheeler’s tenure:
1. Shrinking Obama’s Signature Climate Policy
In 2015, President Barack Obama finalized the Clean Power Plan, a sweeping rule to cut carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants and the centerpiece of his plan to tackle global warming. President Trump, who called the plan “stupid” and “job-killing,” ordered a repeal, and Mr. Pruitt formally began to undo it in October.
The E.P.A. is still legally obligated to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. So, under Mr. Pruitt, the agency drafted a much weaker alternative to the Clean Power Plan that would require only modest tweaks to existing coal plants. This proposal still has to go through public comment and review before it can be finalized, and environmental organizations have said they will challenge it in court.
Some conservatives have urged the E.P.A. to take a bigger step and refuse to regulate greenhouse gases altogether, by overturning a 2009 legal opinion known as the endangerment finding. But Mr. Wheeler, who has questioned the established science on climate change, appeared to shy away from this option during his Senate confirmation hearing for his current post, telling Democrats he considered the finding “settled.”
2. Fighting With California Over Vehicle Standards
The E.P.A. has also been working with the Transportation Department to loosen Obama-era rules on greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks. Their proposal, which is under review by the White House, would seek to halt any rise in fuel-economy standards after 2021 and rescind California’s authority to set its own, tougher standards for automobiles.
California has vowed to challenge this move in court, and some automakers have expressed unease at a legal fight that could drag on for years and potentially fracture the nation’s vehicle market. One question is whether Mr. Wheeler will try to negotiate a compromise with California and other states in order to avoid risky litigation.
“This will be an early test,” said Jody Freeman, a law professor at Harvard who was the counselor for energy and climate change in the Obama White House. “Does he follow Pruitt and take a big legal risk by aggressively going after California? Or does he try to pull back in search of a deregulatory result that everyone can live with?”
3. Scaling Back the Clean Water Rule
Last year, Mr. Pruitt signed a proposal to pare back an Obama-era regulation known as the Waters of the United States rule, which sought to clarify which streams and wetlands get automatic protection under the Clean Water Act. Farmers and developers had criticized the Obama-era policy as overly intrusive, and Mr. Pruitt sought to suspend the rule while writing a new, much narrower regulation that would extend protections to fewer waterways.
But that proposal faces an uncertain fate in the courts: In drafting a replacement, Mr. Pruitt’s E.P.A. planned to follow guidelines laid out by Justice Antonin Scalia in 2006 — in an opinion that did not receive majority support on the Supreme Court. Mr. Wheeler will be tasked with trying to write a regulation that is legally defensible.
4. Changing the E.P.A.’s Use of Science
In April, Mr. Pruitt unveiled a proposal to change the way the E.P.A. relies on scientific research, by limiting the use of studies in which the underlying data is not publicly available. Scientific researchers criticized the move, noting that the proposal could exclude some of the most important studies available on the harms from air pollution or pesticides, because those studies frequently redacted confidential health information about their participants.
Mr. Wheeler is expected to move forward on this policy, but he may be forced to make changes. Several business groups, including pesticide makers and the National Association of Home Builders, recently expressed worry that Mr. Pruitt’s proposal was overly broad.
5. Finding a Compromise on Biofuels
Before his resignation, Mr. Pruitt came under fire from a number of Senate Republicans — not because of his ethics issues, but because of ethanol.
In recent months, Mr. Pruitt exempted more than two dozen small oil refineries from a mandate to use renewable fuels, like ethanol made from corn. Behind the scenes, he also worked to revise the E.P.A.’s biofuels rules to lighten the burden on the oil industry. But those moves provoked the ire of corn-state senators like Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, who threatened to call for Mr. Pruitt’s resignation.
Some experts think that Mr. Wheeler may try to steer clear of this fight altogether. In a research note to clients on Thursday, analysts at ClearView Energy Partners wrote that the E.P.A. could now be less inclined to revamp the biofuels mandate and offer exemptions to small refineries, “particularly after the quagmire these decisions created.”