WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Andrew Wheeler, a former fossil fuel industry lobbyist whom US President Donald Trump nominated earlier this month to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, told a key Senate panel on Wednesday (Jan 16) that he would continue the administration's aggressive reversal of environmental rules even as Democrats asked him why he wasn't doing more to curb greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change.
"Through our deregulatory actions, the Trump administration has proven that burdensome federal regulations are not necessary to drive environmental progress," Wheeler told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee at his confirmation hearing.
"Certainty, and the innovation that thrives in a climate of certainty, are key to progress."
Wheeler, who was confirmed as the agency's top deputy last year, has served as the EPA's acting administrator since July. An agency veteran who also worked in the Senate before becoming a lobbyist, Wheeler is more low-key than his predecessor Scott Pruitt, who was forced to resign in July amid federal ethics inquiries.
But Wheeler has continued to generate controversy because of the policies he's continued to advance at the helm of the EPA.
Protesters began chanting as soon as he began speaking, only to be removed from the room by police.
One man shouted, "Shut down Wheeler, not the EPA!" Outside, a larger group of activists continued the same chant as Wheeler resumed his remarks.
Wheeler has made clear - both through his words and actions - that he would pursue many of the regulatory rollbacks Pruitt put in motion and carry out Trump's promises of a more efficient, less powerful EPA.
Wheeler highlighted nearly three dozen significant rules that the EPA had rolled back during the past two years in his prepared testimony.
Democrats have little hope of blocking Wheeler's confirmation. But they used the hearing to lambaste him and the administration's environmental record.
Senator Thomas Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the panel, questioned why the EPA has worked to reverse federal rules that have broad industry support such as limits on mercury pollution from power plants and stricter fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks.
"Mr Wheeler is certainly not the ethically bereft embarrassment that Scott Pruitt proved to be and - to be fair - he has engaged more frequently and substantively than Scott Pruitt both with Congress and EPA career staff. I knew that Mr Wheeler and I would not always agree," Carper said.
"But I hoped he would moderate some of Scott Pruitt's most environmentally destructive policies, specifically where industry and the environmental community are in agreement. Regrettably, my hopes have not be realised.
In fact, upon examination, Mr Wheeler's environmental policies appear to be just as extreme as his predecessor's."
Wheeler's confirmation hearing comes amid a partial government shutdown that has limited the EPA's ability to conduct its most basic functions, including industrial inspections and monitoring for pollution nationwide.
Wheeler testified that about 800 of the EPA's roughly 14,000 employees have been deemed essential to continue working during the shutdown, and many key policies will be delayed as a result of the budget stalemate, Carper questioned why the Senate was taking up Wheeler's nomination, given the shutdown.
"I do not believe that giving the acting administrator a speedy promotion is more urgent and more important than protecting the public from contamination to our air and water and lands," he said.
But Republicans countered that Wheeler's extensive experience made him well qualified to steer the EPA, and should be confirmed as soon as possible. Senator James Inhofe, of Oklahoma, who served as Wheeler's boss in the Senate, introduced him to the committee and blamed Democratic Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer for the budget impasse.
"I really do think the midst of the Schumer shutdown is a good time to confirm some of these nominees," Inhofe said.
The panel's chairman, Wyoming Senator John Barrasso said that the nominee has demonstrated his mastery of policy arcana over the last six months.
"Under Acting Administrator Wheeler's leadership, the agency has taken a number of significant actions to protect our nation's environment, while also supporting economic growth," he said.
For the most part, Republicans asked questions about pending policies that affected economic sectors such as refiners and farmers. Barrasso, for example, asked whether the partial government shutdown was affecting the speed at which refiners could receive federal permits.
Democrats, meanwhile, sought to pin down Wheeler on questions ranging from his views on climate change to his past lobbying work.
Independent Senator Bernie Sanders pressed Wheeler repeatedly on whether he agreed with President Trump's comment that climate change amounted to a Chinese "hoax."
After being pressed, the acting administrator replied, "I have not used the 'hoax' word myself."
Sanders then asked Wheeler whether he accepts the consensus of most scientists believe climate change is one of the most serious problems facing the nation, "I would not call it the greatest crisis, no sir," he replied.
"I would call it a huge issue that needs to be addressed globally."
Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse honed in on Wheeler's work for coal firm executive Robert Murray, who heads Murray Energy Corporation, just before he joined the EPA.
Telling Wheeler, "You have had your thumb, wrist, forearm on the scales for the fossil fuel industry," Whitehouse grilled the nominee about a meeting he and Murray attended with Energy Secretary Rick Perry in 2017.
At one point the senator displayed a photo of Perry and Murray in a bear hug, "That's not me, though," the nominee interjected. "No, no," Whitehouse responded. "That's your client." Industry leaders indeed have welcomed Wheeler's nomination.
Jim Matheson, chief executive of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, whose group includes hundreds of electric cooperatives nationwide, said in a statement that Wheeler "has demonstrated his ability to head the agency and understands the importance of common-sense regulatory reforms that promote a healthy environment and vibrant rural communities."
Wheeler arrived back at the EPA - where he had worked during the early 1990s - last spring after the Senate confirmed him by a vote of 53-45 as the top deputy to Pruitt.
It had been a long absence since his early-career work as a regulator. For nearly 15 years, Wheeler worked as a staff member on Capitol Hill, including as an adviser to Inhofe, a high-profile critic of the EPA and of climate science. He later spent nearly a decade lobbying for the sort of companies that EPA regulates, including energy and mining firms. Among his professional activities, he once listed his post as vice president of the Washington Coal Club.
In July, several months after his return to the EPA, the Ohio native became acting administrator of the agency after Pruitt was forced to resign amid federal ethics inquiries.
"The agenda for the agency was set out by President Trump," Wheeler told The Post at the time. "I will try to work to implement the president's agenda as well. I don't think the overall agenda is going to change that much, because we're implementing what the president has laid out."
In November, during an unrelated event at the White House, Trump announced that he intended to nominate Wheeler as permanent administrator.
"He's done a fantastic job," the president said.
But environmental advocates have argued that he has too many conflicts of interest to serve in the agency's top role, and that the policies he aims to pursue threaten the public health and safety of ordinary Americans.
"The fox in the hen house analogies are endless here, but so is Wheeler's ability to roll back vital safeguards to our air, water, and climate and put our environment and health at risk should he remain in the top spot at the EPA," Matthew Gravatt, associate legislative director for the Sierra Club, wrote ahead of Wednesday's confirmation hearing.
"Wheeler isn't just friendly with corporate polluters; he's been on their team for years."