WASHINGTON (AP) – Acting Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler described himself as a champion of deregulation and the environment at his confirmation hearing Wednesday, even as a leading Democrat called him “just as extreme” as predecessor Scott Pruitt.
The Republican-controlled Senate Environment and Public Works Committee was considering Wheeler’s nomination as agency administrator. Wheeler began his testimony Wednesday over the chants of environmental protesters, who shouted “Shut Down Wheeler” in the committee room and the hallway outside.
The EPA under Wheeler has moved forward on the Trump administration’s deregulatory aims since Pruitt resigned in July amid ethics scandals. That includes easing the mileage standards that cars and trucks will have to meet, relaxing measures on climate-changing carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and removing millions of miles of wetlands and waterways from federal protections, among other changes.
The committee chairman, Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, called Wheeler “very well qualified” to take the job.
But Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said Wheeler’s environmental policies in his six months as the agency’s acting head were “just as extreme” as those of Pruitt.
Carper cited the rollbacks in car mileage standards and toxic mercury emissions under Wheeler as examples of unsafe deregulation, saying they went beyond what industries themselves wanted.
Sen. Bernie Sanders noted Wheeler had failed to mention climate change in his remarks to the lawmakers.
“Do you agree that climate change is a global crisis?” the Vermont independent asked.
“I would not call it the greatest crisis,” Wheeler said. “I would call it a huge issue that has to be addressed globally.”
Environmental groups also say Wheeler’s lobbying work for coal companies and other interests regulated by the agency should disqualify him.
“A coal lobbyist is unfit to run the EPA, period,” said Matt Gravatt, associate legislative director at the Sierra Club.
Wheeler worked at the Washington law and lobbying firm Faegre Baker Daniels from 2009 until April 2018, according to his filing with the Office of Government Ethics.
His lobbying clients included coal magnate Bob Murray, who pushed hard on the Trump administration to grant a series of breaks for the sagging domestic coal industry. Wheeler accompanied Murray to a March 2017 meeting to pitch then-new Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Murray’s list of desired rule rollbacks and other breaks.
Murray had sought some of the EPA’s coal initiatives under Wheeler, which included easing federal regulation of toxic coal ash, removing an Obama rule that pushed electricity providers to move away from dirtier-burning coal plants and targeting an Obama rule limiting emissions of toxic mercury from coal plants.
A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed an ethics complaint Tuesday with the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General alleging that Wheeler’s oversight of those and other rollback proposals at EPA may have violated his government ethics pledge to abstain from regulatory decisions affecting his former lobbying client for at least two years.
“His failure to abide by ethics obligations and to avoid the reality or appearance of conflicts critically undermines the EPA’s integrity and weakens public confidence in our government,” CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder said in a statement.
EPA spokesman John Konkus called the accusation “baseless” and “wrong.”
“Acting Administrator Wheeler works closely with career EPA ethics officials and follows their guidance. This is nothing more than a last-second political stunt by a group to try to attack President Trump’s nominee hours before his confirmation hearing and should be recognized as such,” Konkus said.
Conservation and environmental groups said Wheeler should also be pressed at Wednesday’s hearing on the environmental and public health effects of the EPA’s proposed regulatory easing.
“It’s imperative the senators ask the tough questions about his role in the decisions and the impact he’s going to have” on health and safety, said Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation.
Conservation groups objected this week to the Republican-controlled Senate committee holding Wheeler’s nomination hearing during the government shutdown.
The grandson of a coal miner, Wheeler worked for the EPA in the 1990s and later as a longtime staffer for Senate Republicans.