President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, defended his efforts to ease environmental regulations in a confirmation hearing Wednesday, amid fierce criticism from Senate Democrats insisting he is leading a dangerous U.S. retreat from the fight against climate change.
Wheeler, a former energy lobbyist who has served as acting administrator for six months, did not mention global warming in his opening remarks to the Environment and Public Works Committee, instead touting agency deregulatory efforts he said would spare businesses some $1.8 billion in compliance costs.
“How does it happen that the nominee to be head of the Environmental Protection Agency does not mention the words climate change at a time when the scientific community thinks climate change is the greatest environmental crisis facing the planet?” asked Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats. “Should the American people have confidence that you’re going to help us deal with this global crisis?”
Wheeler replied: “Yes, they should have confidence, because we are moving forward to reduce CO2.”
Wheeler deftly parried questions about both the intricate details of biofuel policy as well as the sweeping consequences of climate change over nearly three hours of testimony Wednesday, one week after Trump formally tapped him to replace the agency’s scandal-plagued former chief, Scott Pruitt. Although Wheeler does not share Pruitt’s penchant for the limelight — nor the missteps that put Pruitt in political jeopardy — Wheeler is nonetheless similarly committed to Trump’s agenda of easing Obama administration regulations governing climate change and pollution.
“Mr. Wheeler is certainly not the ethically bereft embarrassment that Scott Pruitt proved to be,” said Senator Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware. However, “Mr. Wheeler’s environmental policies appear to be just as extreme as his predecessor’s.”
The nominee’s remarks were briefly drowned out by protesters chanting “Shut down Wheeler, not the EPA,” from activists outside the hearing room’s thick wooden doors — a nod to the stalemate over spending that has shuttered roughly a quarter of the federal government for weeks.
Senate Democrats and environmental activists unsuccessfully argued the Senate should have postponed Wheeler’s hearing because of the shutdown, which has prevented EPA employees from working on the cleanup of toxic Superfund sites and fulfilling Trump’s promise last October to lift summertime fueling restrictions on higher ethanol E15 gasoline.
Wheeler highlighted his efforts to rewrite environmental regulations, including limits on carbon dioxide releases from coal-fired power plants and automobile emissions.
“Why are you pulling back on regulations that ultimately help us to deal with what your climate scientists say we need to do in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions?” asked Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey.
Wheeler repeatedly insisted that modeling of the EPA’s proposed rule governing greenhouse gas releases from power plants will produce a greater reduction in those emissions than the Obama-era regulation it would replace.
Pressed to detail his views on climate change — and his commitment to addressing it — Wheeler declined Sanders’ invitation to label the phenomenon “greatest crisis facing our planet.”
“I would not call it the greatest crisis,’’ Wheeler said. “It’s a huge issue that has to be addressed globally.’’ Wheeler nevertheless later said he was an eight or a nine on a 10-point scale of concern about climate change.
Republicans and Democrats alike pushed Wheeler to address U.S. biofuel mandates, as corn interests and oil companies spar over the issue. Wheeler stressed that his agency has limited room to maneuver in fielding applications from small refineries seeking exemptions from annual biofuel blending quotas.
Wheeler also said the shutdown could delay an EPA proposal to allow year-round sales of E15 gasoline. But he insisted the change still will be finalized “in time for the summer driving season” provided the shutdown ends in a “reasonable” time.
Democrats urged Wheeler to swiftly negotiate a compromise with automakers and California over fuel-economy standards that can avert years of litigation on the issue.
“Nobody wants a 50-state deal more than I do,” Wheeler said. “I haven’t given up hope on that yet, but we’re also looking at the calendar, and we need to finalize our proposal by March 30.”
Wheeler, now the agency’s No. 2 official, defended the agency’s move to relax vehicle efficiency standards at a time when the U.S. is marking significant reductions in air pollution.
“Through our deregulatory actions, the Trump administration has proven that burdensome federal regulations are not necessary to drive environmental progress,” Wheeler said. “Thanks to our hardworking public servants, pollution is on the decline. Our focus now is to accelerate its decline, particularly in communities where it poses the most immediate and lasting harm.”
Democrats questioned whether Wheeler has sufficiently avoided issues involving his former lobbying clients, including chemical manufacturer Celanese Corp., coal producer Murray Energy Corp., uranium miner Energy Fuels Resources Inc., and utility holding company Xcel Energy Inc.
But Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota suggested Wheeler’s industry past shouldn’t disqualify him. Rather, it may have well prepared Wheeler to lead the agency, Cramer said.
“Should we bar farmers from being the secretary of agriculture? Should we bar doctors from being the head of Health and Human Services? Or attorneys from being attorney general, or bankers from being head of the Treasury Department?’’ Cramer asked. “This is a funny path.’’