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Politics

On path to Senate confirmation, Trump’s EPA pick has tried to avoid Scott Pruitt’s missteps

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As acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler has pushed forward with efforts to weaken environmental regulations put in place under the Obama administration.
(AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Andrew Wheeler, President Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, has two things going for him when he appears before senators Wednesday at his confirmation hearing.

First, he’s not Scott Pruitt, who was forced to resign last year under a cloud of ethics investigations.

Second, with a 53-seat Republican majority in the Senate, the numbers are on his side.

But Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist who replaced Pruitt to become acting EPA chief last year, will still face a grilling from Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

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He has continued — and even expanded — the deregulatory path charted under Pruitt. Environmental groups complain of Wheeler’s apparent willingness to ease clean air and water rules for the benefit of industry.

And Democrats will almost certainly press Wheeler about his views on climate change amid new research suggesting the environmental and economic damage is more severe than once feared. Wheeler, 53, spent more than a decade working for one of the best-known climate change deniers in Congress, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.).

But unlike Pruitt, an ambitious former Oklahoma attorney general whose lavish spending with taxpayer money attracted unwelcome attention, Wheeler is a seasoned, low-key Washington insider.

He has already acquired a reputation as a more disciplined version of his predecessor, with more experience in the legal maneuvers required to unwind regulation.

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“Much of what Pruitt did was designed to be sort of splashy and to be popular with his [conservative] constituency,” said attorney Jeff Holmstead, a former EPA official. Wheeler, on the other hand, has years of experience in environmental policy and, Holmstead said, “no political ambitions.”

Under Wheeler, the EPA has continued to unveil a series of plans to undo Obama-era environmental policies, taking steps to allow more planet-warming gases and pollutants to be released.

Last summer, the EPA and the Transportation Department announced plans to significantly weaken car pollution standards.

The agencies’ proposal would roll back a 2012 rule that required automakers to raise vehicles’ fuel economy to an average of 54 miles per gallon by 2025. In doing so, the EPA picked a fight with California, challenging the state’s authority to set its own, tougher car emission standards.

In December, the EPA proposed a major rollback of the Clean Water Act that would remove federal protection from many seasonal streams and wetlands that are important to the drinking-water supplies and the ecology of California and other arid Western states.

Drawn up at the behest of farm groups, real estate developers and other business interests, the plan could affect as many as two-thirds of California’s inland freshwater streams.

The agency followed that announcement a few weeks later by revealing a plan to change rules governing mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Some of the regulatory rollbacks started under Pruitt have been blocked by the courts — an outcome that environmental law experts have attributed to Pruitt’s haste and the sheer aggressiveness of his proposals. Wheeler, who worked at the EPA during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, may be more strategic and, as a result, more effective.

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“I suspect that Administrator Wheeler will be more careful than Pruitt was,” said Ann Carlson, an environmental law expert at UCLA. “He will be savvier about building the necessary record to at least put EPA’s best case in front of the court.”

Still, she said, “there’s no question the court battles will fill the next two years.”

Climate change is expected to be a major line of questioning at Wednesday’s hearing.

Two major scientific reports have been published since Wheeler last appeared before the Senate to be confirmed as Pruitt’s deputy, both of which warned of the dire effects of climate change and the narrowing window of opportunity that people and governments have to respond. A November report issued by 13 federal agencies found that climate change would devastate the U.S. economy, directly contradicting the Trump administration’s mantra that environmental deregulation leads to economic growth.

These findings could put pressure on Wheeler to justify policies that would lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions.

“I do believe climate change is real. I do believe that people have an impact on the climate,” he told the Washington Post last year. Yet, he told the newspaper, he viewed the EPA as having only a small role in addressing climate change.

To environmentalists, Wheeler’s comments seem intended to obscure his history of advocating for regulatory rollbacks.

“What half-sentence he may have uttered here and there is irrelevant when you look at what he’s actually done for a living,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “Putting Andrew Wheeler in charge of the EPA is like putting Tony Soprano in charge of the FBI. It’s completely inappropriate.”

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With the government still partially shut down over the president’s demand for a border wall, several Democratic senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee have questioned whether Wheeler’s nomination hearing should go forward at all.

In a letter to Wheeler, four Democratic senators objected to the use of agency employees to prepare him for his confirmation hearing, while many of the EPA’s other responsibilities — inspections and enforcement, clean-up of toxic Superfund sites — have come to a halt.

“It is difficult to understand how preparing you for next week’s confirmation hearing credibly falls within any of the categories listed in EPA’s contingency plan, particularly the category of employee that is ‘necessary to protect life and property,’” the senators wrote to Wheeler.

In response, EPA officials defended readying the acting administrator for the hearing as essential work.

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