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Andrew Wheeler, former energy lobbyist, confirmed as nation’s top environmental official

As acting chief at the EPA, Wheeler has advanced the Trump administration’s deregulation agenda.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) grilled EPA administrator nominee Andrew Wheeler about climate change on Jan. 15. (Video: Reuters)

The Senate on Thursday approved former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to head the Environmental Protection Agency by a vote of 52 to 47, elevating a veteran of Washington political and industry circles who has advanced President Trump’s push to rollback Obama-era environmental regulations.

Wheeler, who began his career at EPA during the 1990s but spent years on Capitol Hill before heading to the private sector, has won praise from Republicans for his deregulatory agenda but criticism from Democrats for his refusal to take action on climate change and several public health priorities. He has been running the agency since Trump’s first administrator, Scott Pruitt, stepped down in July amid multiple scandals surrounding his management and spending practices. Trump said in November that he intended to nominate Wheeler for the top job, saying he had done a “fantastic job” in his interim role.

At his confirmation hearing in January, Wheeler highlighted dozens of significant rules that the EPA has begun to roll back during the past two years, and he made clear to lawmakers that he intended to continue the Trump administration’s reversal of environmental regulations.

“Through our deregulatory actions, the Trump administration has proven that burdensome federal regulations are not necessary to drive environmental progress,” Wheeler said at the time. “Certainty, and the innovation that thrives in a climate of certainty, are key to progress.”

Despite the litany of rollbacks, the EPA under Wheeler also has rolled out initiatives aimed at reducing lead exposures around the country and providing oversight for a class of unregulated, long-lasting chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, or PFAS, that pose serious health risks to millions of Americans. But the agency has yet to take definitive regulatory action on those proposals.

Under Trump, EPA inspections fall o a 10-year low

One Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, voted against Wheeler’s confirmation Thursday on the grounds that he had worked to water down federal rules curbing greenhouse gas pollution from power plants, as well as weaken fuel standards for the nation’s cars and pickup trucks.

“I believe that Mr. Wheeler, unlike Scott Pruitt, understands the mission of the EPA and acts in accordance with ethical standards; however, the policies he has supported as Acting Administrator are not in the best interest of our environment and public health, particularly given the threat of climate change to our nation,” Collins, who supported Wheeler’s confirmation as deputy EPA administrator last year, said in a statement.

While Democrats initially viewed Wheeler as a pragmatic technocrat with whom they could forge a handful of policy compromises, they expressed disappointment over key decisions he has made at the agency.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, had voted to confirm Wheeler as EPA deputy administrator last year. But he decided to oppose Wheeler this time, he said, in light of his push to freeze vehicle fuel efficiency standards and to revisit the cost-benefit analysis the agency used to impose limits on mercury pollution that power companies have already achieved.

“As Acting Administrator, he hasn’t demonstrated a desire or a will to make any meaningful progress on clean drinking water standards and has rolled back clean air standards that are directly impacting West Virginians,” Manchin said in a statement.

Acting EPA Administrator Wheeler responds to mass exodus of employees from the agency (Video: Priya Mathew/Washington Post Live)

Democrats used the vote as an opportunity to call for greater action on climate change, with more than half-a-dozen senators speaking to a nearly empty chamber about why the federal government should press for steeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. “It ought to tell us a lot that the Republicans put up a coal lobbyist to represent the people of America, leading the Environmental Protection Agency,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

The world has already warmed more than 1 degree Celsius since pre-industrial levels, and a United Nations report last fall concluded humans need to cut their carbon emissions nearly in half over the coming decade in order to stave off the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. So far, that appears unlikely, as many nations are failing to hit the emissions targets they set as part of the 2015 Paris climate accord. Global emissions also rose during 2018.

But most Republicans, including Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.), said Wheeler had eased the burden on industry without undermining key environmental protections. Barrasso pointed to EPA’s push to scale back limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plans and the federal government’s jurisdiction over water bodies in the United States.

“During the last administration, the EPA issued punishing regulations that would hurt the economy and raise costs on families. Under Acting Administrator Wheeler’s leadership, the EPA has taken a different approach,” Barrasso said.

Industry officials credited Wheeler at helping spur the economy by restraining what they view as federal overreach.

“Regulatory certainty has been key to the historic manufacturing job growth we’ve seen under the current administration, and that would not have been possible without Andrew’s leadership at EPA,” said Jay Timmons, president and chief executive of the National Association of Manufacturers in an statement.

And Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, said Wheeler’s “extensive experience” had prepared him to serve as the nation’s top environmental official.

Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president for political affairs at the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, said in an email that senators who cast their vote on Wheeler knew exactly what sort of choice they faced.

“Unlike with some nominees, we do not have to speculate about what Mr. Wheeler will do in office,” Gore said. “From his actions as acting administrator for the past eight months, we have clear evidence of his agenda: undermine rules to limit toxic mercury, allow more smog and water pollution, and roll back protections against the threat of climate change. The senators who voted to entrust Mr. Wheeler with our environment know exactly what he will do with that power.”