Andrew Wheeler, President Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, told a Senate panel Wednesday that he does not believe climate change is the “greatest crisis” and vowed to continue the administration’s agenda of rolling back environmental regulations.
Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist who replaced Scott Pruitt to become acting EPA chief last year, faced pointed questions from Democratic senators who sought to cast him as a lackey for the fossil fuel industry and polluters. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who focused on Wheeler’s previous work for a coal firm, described him as someone who has his “thumb, wrist, forearm and elbow on the scales” in favor of the energy industry.
Speaking before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Wheeler defended his efforts to relax clean air and water rules as necessary to spur economic growth. He highlighted nearly three-dozen different efforts to roll back regulations since Trump became president.
“Through our deregulatory actions, the Trump administration has proven that burdensome federal regulations are not necessary to drive environmental progress,” Wheeler said at his confirmation hearing. “Certainty, and the innovation that thrives in a climate of certainty, are key to progress.”
He also defended his resistance to making climate change a top priority and echoed President Trump’s misleading claim that wildfires are mostly a result of poor forest management, rather than worsening drought, increasing development and a warming planet.
Pressed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to explain his position on climate change, Wheeler did not deny the established science that humans are causing global warming. Nor did he repeat Trump’s claim that climate change is a hoax. “I've not used the hoax word myself,” he said.
But he showed no sense of urgency to tackle the issue. “I would not call it the greatest crisis, no, sir,” he said to Sanders. “I consider it a huge issue that has to be addressed globally.”
A report published in November, compiled by 13 federal agencies — including the EPA — found that global warming poses a profound threat to human life, the environment and the nation’s economy. It warned that if significant measures are not taken to rein in climate change, the damage from more severe weather could shrink America’s economy to a tenth of its size by 2100.
Asked if he had read the report, Wheeler said he had been briefed once by his staff. He argued that the EPA is already taking steps to reduce carbon emissions, which a recent study found have increased in the last year after years of decline.
Wheeler was also asked about the EPA’s proposal to relax Obama-era fuel economy standards that were designed to get the nation’s cars and trucks to average more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025. In August, the administration proposed freezing mileage targets in 2020 for six years and moved to take away California’s authority to set its own tougher standards. Thirteen other states follow California’s more stringent rules.
The Trump administration’s proposal would benefit the oil industry. But automakers, who once backed the plan to weaken the standard, now worry the dispute will become tied up in the courts for years, or result in different standards in different states.
At the hearing, Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the committee, said he had “heard that the Trump administration now plans to finalize a 0.5% annual increase in the stringency of the standards, a rate that is 10 times weaker than the current rules.” This proposal, he said, would “only lead to extensive litigation and uncertainty for our automakers, and that's not a win-win outcome. It's really more of a lose-lose.”
An EPA spokeswoman said that no final decisions have been made about the agency’s plans. But if the agency does go forward with this proposal, it’s likely to encounter stiff resistance from California.
“Given the current state and cost of technology to reduce climate pollution from vehicles, half a percent is verging on ridiculous,” said California Air Resources Board spokesman Stanley Young. “Of course it’s better than zero, but can only be justified by more flawed arguments about safety. Industry has proven they can do better than this.”
Wheeler said he had met several times with California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols and was eager to negotiate a deal to create one set of fuel economy standards for the country. “Nobody wants a 50-state deal more than I do,” he said.
Wheeler is expected to sail to confirmation and become the permanent replacement for Pruitt, who was forced to resign last year under a cloud of ethics investigations.
Republicans, who have a 53-seat majority in the Senate, praised him during the hearing for rolling back a series of Obama-era environmental regulations that they consider burdensome and expensive to implement. Several of them celebrated his efforts to overhaul a rule known as “Waters of the United States” that places federal protections on wetlands and streams.
While environmentalists say these protections are important to drinking water quality and ecology, the regulation has come under fire from the agriculture industry.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chair of the committee, said Wheeler had done an “outstanding” job of leading the EPA. “The cost of regulations coming out of the EPA was staggering before President Trump took office,” Barrasso said.
Democrats used the hearing to grill Wheeler on the specifics of proposals to roll back various regulations, particularly those that already have been implemented, such as rules restricting mercury emissions from power plants.
“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 been realized. In fact, upon examination, Mr. Wheeler’s environmental policies appear to be just as extreme as his predecessor’s.”
Wheeler’s opening statement was interrupted by protesters from environmental advocacy groups, who led a chant outside the hearing room: “Shut down Wheeler, not the EPA!”