Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s nomination last week of Andrew Wheeler to be his secretary of natural resources drew backlash from Democratic state lawmakers and climate activists, who expressed concern about the onetime lobbyist’s ties to the coal industry and his environmental record under former President Donald Trump. As secretary of natural resources, Wheeler would occupy the state’s top environmental post.
OpenSecrets reported on Wheeler’s industry connections in 2018 before he took charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, where he oversaw the rollback of environmental rules.
The nomination is expected to kick off a contentious confirmation fight, with Democratic state lawmakers worried that Wheeler could reverse climate policies and environmental protections championed by the previous governor, Ralph Northam (D), according to The Hill. Cabinet nominees must be confirmed by both chambers of the General Assembly. Although Republicans control the House of Delegates, Democrats maintain a slim 21-to-19 majority in the State Senate.
Wheeler is not the only nominee or staff member in Youngkin’s incoming administration to share ties to fossil fuel companies and energy providers, however.
Youngkin’s chief transformation officer, Eric Moeller, held senior executive positions at Valero Energy Corporation and AGE Refining, a Texas-based oil refiner, before joining consulting firm McKinsey & Company. While a partner at McKinsey, Moeller’s clients included a global offshore drilling operator and a North American mining company.
Margaret McDermid, Youngkin’s nominee for secretary of administration, was a senior vice president and chief information office at Dominion Energy — one of the state’s largest utility companies. She worked there for more than 30 years before joining the Federal Reserve System in 2012.
The governor-elect also appointed Richard Cullen to be his legal counsel. A longtime political insider and a contributor to Youngkin’s campaign, Cullen is a senior partner and former chairman of the legal and lobbying firm McGuireWoods. He joined the firm in 1977 and spent most of his career there, leaving for only brief stints to serve as a U.S. attorney and Virginia’s attorney general.
Although Cullen has not personally lobbied for any energy, mining, oil, or gas companies, his firm received more than $2.7 million from Dominion Energy between 1998 and 2021, according to federal lobbying disclosures. From 2015 to 2020, the firm was paid between $120,000 to $150,000 annually to lobby on a range of issues, including a controversial proposal for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600-mile natural gas pipeline running through Virginia. Cullen’s late brother-in-law, Thomas Farrell II was Dominion Energy’s CEO at the time. Following years of bitter opposition from landowners and climate activists, the company canceled the project, citing regulatory uncertainty and mounting costs.
Starting in 2017, Dominion Energy retained McGuireWoods for stateside lobbying as well, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Other clients of McGuireWoods have included Exxon Mobil, American Petroleum Institute, Southern Company, Duke Energy, and Colonial Group.
Youngkin provided few policy specifics related to energy and environmental issues during the gubernatorial campaign, leaving his views on those issues largely unclear. Although he acknowledged that rising seas pose a risk to coastal communities, he called Virginia’s Clean Economy Act — which requires the state’s largest utility companies to be 100% carbon-free by 2050 — “unworkable”and emphasized the need to embrace all energy sources: wind, solar, nuclear, and natural gas.
More recently, he vowed to pull the state out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an 11-state carbon market in which power plants purchase allowances for their carbon emissions in quarterly auctions.
The governor-elect’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement announcing Wheeler’s nomination, Youngkin said, “Virginia needs a diverse energy portfolio in place to fuel our economic growth, continued preservation of our natural resources, and a comprehensive plan to tackle rising sea levels.”
He added that Wheeler shares his “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.”
A former chief executive at a private equity firm, Youngkin defeated former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in the most expensive governor’s race in recent state history. Together Youngkin and McAullife raised more than $136 million during the election, mostly from big donors contributing $10,000 or more. Virginia does not limit the amount that individuals may donate to candidates.
Among Youngkin’s wealthy benefactors were several people connected to the energy and natural resources sector, campaign finance records show. Richard Gilliam, the former president of a family-owned Virginia coal mining company, gave $300,000 to Youngkin’s campaign. Bruce Gottwald, the former head of a petroleum additives company in the state, contributed $250,000. Mindy Hildebrand, whose husband co-founded Hilcorp, the largest privately-owned oil and gas company in the U.S., donated $100,000.
Altogether, people and companies in the energy and natural resources sector contributed more than $1.2 million to Youngkin’s campaign, according to an OpenSecrets analysis of campaign finance records.
McAullife raised less than half that amount from the energy and natural resources sector. The sector contributed nearly $7.7 million to all candidates and committees during the Virginia 2021 election cycle.