New EPA chief faces first test on Capitol Hill

New EPA chief faces first test on Capitol Hill

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) interim chief Andrew Wheeler faces his first congressional test Wednesday when he testifies at his first hearing since taking over for scandal-plagued Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Trump administration to repeal waterway protections| House votes to block drilling in Arctic refuge| Administration takes key step to open Alaskan refuge to drilling by end of year Trump administration to repeal waterway protections The Hill's Morning Report - Gillibrand drops out as number of debaters shrinks MORE.

While Democrats plan to grill Wheeler — a former energy lobbyist — over his policy goals at the agency, the public testimony is expected to have a decidedly different dynamic compared to the heated exchanges that punctuated most of Pruitt’s appearances on Capitol Hill.

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Members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee are hoping they can finally focus on EPA’s policy initiatives.

GOP senators want to hear Wheeler take the same hard-line approach against Obama-era regulations and continue Pruitt’s push to roll-back protections. Democrats would like to hear a more respectful tone regarding environmental issues like climate change.

“When we had Mr. Pruitt before us there were so many distractions to deal with,”  said Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinCongress passes bill to begin scenic byways renaissance GOP lawmaker: 'Dangerous' abuse of Interpol by Russia, China, Venezuela Senators pressure Trump to help end humanitarian crisis in Kashmir MORE (D-Md.), a senior member of the panel. “The substantive issues were critically important, but there were a lot of issues unrelated to the substance. Here I think we’ll get right into the substance.”

He said Democrats will want to hear about actions that have been taken on clean air, clean water, lead and toxic chemicals.

Cardin said he wants to try “to get an understanding of where Mr. Wheeler, we hope, will respect the traditional roles of the Environmental Protection Agency that has been lacking.”

Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeHouse rejects GOP motion on replacing Pentagon funding used on border wall Republicans wary of US action on Iran Is the Senate ready to protect American interests in space? MORE (R-Okla.), the panel’s previous chairman, said he expects the tone of Wednesday’s hearing to be drastically different from when Pruitt testified.

“Andy’s a totally different type of person than his predecessor,” Inhofe said. “He’s a very conciliatory type of person, very calm, soft-spoken.”

Wheeler was a senior aide to Inhofe for more than a dozen years before working at the lobbying firm Faegre Baker Daniels LLP.

The Senate confirmed Wheeler in April to be deputy administration in mostly party-line vote of 53 to 45. That followed an 11-10 party-line vote by the Environment and Public Works Committee to advance his nomination.

While Wheeler hasn’t created any major controversies since taking the helm of the EPA July 9, Democrats still expect to press him on a number of issues, including recent meetings he’s held with former energy industry clients — something he promised in an interview with Bloomberg that he wouldn’t do — and his approach to regulatory rollbacks proposed by Pruitt.

When it comes to policy, some Democrats aren’t expecting that Wheeler will be much different than Pruitt.

“He has a very conservative record,” said Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyGreta Thunberg scolds Congress on climate action: 'I know you are trying but just not hard enough' Obama meets with Greta Thunberg: 'One of our planet's greatest advocates' Young insurgents aren't rushing to Kennedy's side in Markey fight MORE (D-Mass.). “There doesn’t appear to be a big difference between the philosophy that he has and that Scott Pruitt had.”

Other Democrats are putting the onus on Wheeler to prove he's different.

“More than ever, Americans want to see a leader at the EPA who is committed to carrying out the mission of the agency -- to protect the public’s health and our environment," said Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperCost for last three government shutdowns estimated at billion Lawmakers grill manufacturers over 'forever chemicals' contamination EPA ordered to set stronger smog standards MORE (D-Del.), ranking member of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, in a statement to The Hill.

"For over a year, Mr. Pruitt abused his position of power for personal gain, pushed policies that jeopardized public health, advocated for industry over people, and worked to discredit objective science,” Carper added. “Tomorrow, Acting Administrator Wheeler will need to describe how he’ll be different than Mr. Pruitt. You can expect some tough questions from me.”

Wheeler has distinguished himself from Pruitt on at least one occasion so far. Last week he reversed a policy that had said EPA wouldn’t enforce Obama-era limits on certain highly-polluting big trucks known as glider trucks, the last major policy decision Pruitt made before leaving the agency.

Earlier this week Wheeler sent an agency-wide memo to staff promising increased transparency. In it, he referenced former EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus, who succeeded Anne Gorsuch, the EPA chief forced to resign in 1983 after being charged with contempt of Congress.

The memo was seen as an attempt to distance himself from Pruitt, who was often criticized for operating with a close inner circle.

Some Democrats are keeping an open mind and hoping that Wheeler’s recent actions are a sign that he’s willing to compromise and work across the aisle on important environmental concerns. If nothing else, they know at least know they are dealing with a different type of administrator than Pruitt.

Those hopes will be put to the test this week, and not just at Wednesday’s hearing. That same day the EPA is expected to release its final plan to roll back Obama-era fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions regulations for cars. While the idea was largely championed by Pruitt, Wheeler will be responsible for giving it the agency’s stamp of approval.