EPA’s Wheeler gets warmer welcome at Senate hearing

EPA’s Wheeler gets warmer welcome at Senate hearing
© Anna Moneymaker

Senators of both parties gave acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler a notably warmer welcome Wednesday compared with how they treated his predecessor.

While they pushed him on their policy differences with the Trump administration, senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee made it clear to Wheeler they were glad to have former administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: EPA to make formal decision on regulating drinking water contaminant | Utility to close coal plant despite Trump plea | Greens say climate is high on 2020 voters’ minds EPA to announce PFAS chemical regulation plans by end of year Court tosses challenge to EPA's exclusion of certain scientists from advisory boards MORE gone.

“I’m encouraged that there will be a number of differences between Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Pruitt and the way they approach this important leadership role,” Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperDems slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants EPA to announce PFAS chemical regulation plans by end of year Overnight Energy: Zinke joins Trump-tied lobbying firm | Senators highlight threat from invasive species | Top Republican calls for Green New Deal vote in House MORE (Del.), the panel’s top Democrat, said at the hearing.

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“I don’t expect to hear as much as a peep from Mr. Wheeler today about used mattress shopping, Chick-fil-A franchises or fancy moisturizers,” Carper continued, eliciting laughs about the scandals that pushed Pruitt out less than a month ago.

“But what we do need to hear from Mr. Wheeler today is how he plans to differentiate himself from Mr. Pruitt across a range of environmental policies that are far more consequential.”

Carper offered Wheeler a gift: a bottle of Diet Coke from the Senate cafeteria with the name “Wheeler” on it. Wheeler collects Coca-Cola memorabilia.

Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoDems slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants Overnight Energy: Zinke joins Trump-tied lobbying firm | Senators highlight threat from invasive species | Top Republican calls for Green New Deal vote in House Senators highlight threat from invasive species MORE (R-Wyo.), the committee’s chairman, was so happy with Wheeler that he called on Trump to nominate him for confirmation to the post.

“I would encourage President TrumpDonald John TrumpMcCabe says he was fired because he 'opened a case against' Trump McCabe: Trump said 'I don't care, I believe Putin' when confronted with US intel on North Korea McCabe: Trump talked to me about his election victory during 'bizarre' job interview MORE to nominate Mr. Wheeler to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Mr. Wheeler is very qualified for that position,” Barrasso said.

“I believe Andrew Wheeler would make an excellent administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Some of Pruitt’s fiercest opponents expressed gratitude at his departure and at Wheeler’s ascension.

“I viewed your predecessor’s tenure as one characterized by tawdry personal behavior in office, a desire to do damage to the agency that he led, a flagrant absence of transactional integrity and horrible environmental policies. And I see a remedy to three of those four. So in that sense, I welcome you,” said Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseGOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats Pence met with silence after mentioning Trump in Munich speech New battle lines in war over Trump’s judicial picks MORE (D-R.I.).

The hearing, Wheeler’s first since his confirmation as deputy administrator in April, was a sort of homecoming for Wheeler. He previously worked for the Environment and Public Works Committee under Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOn The Money: Trump to sign border deal, declare emergency to build wall | Senate passes funding bill, House to follow | Dems promise challenge to emergency declaration Trump to sign border deal, declare national emergency Foreign Affairs chairman: US military intervention in Venezuela 'not an option' MORE (R-Okla.) for 14 years before he left to work at a lobbying firm.

Wheeler told the lawmakers that he plans to largely continue to carry out Pruitt’s policy agenda, while making changes in areas like process and transparency.

“As you can see, we are continuing the president’s agenda post haste,” Wheeler told the senators. “The combination of regulatory relief and the president’s historic tax cuts continues to spur economic growth across the country, particularly the communities that were previously and wrongly ignored and forgotten.”

While lawmakers were generally friendlier to Wheeler than they were to Pruitt, they nonetheless weren’t afraid to press him on policy differences.

Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyGOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats Green New Deal Resolution invites big picture governing We can have a Green New Deal, and air travel too MORE (D-Mass.) became animated when he asked Wheeler about car fuel economy and emissions standards, which the EPA will soon propose to roll back.

Markey framed the issue as being driven by the oil industry, afraid to lose sales when cars get more efficient.

“The oil industry is scared to death that the billions of barrels of reserves that they are claiming on their balance sheets to the Securities and Exchange Commission will end up as so-called stranded assets,” Markey said.

He pushed Wheeler to acknowledge estimates that rolling back the rules would increase fuel costs and oil consumption.

“Do you agree that freezing the standards at 2020 levels would mean would consumers would pay more to fill up their gas tanks than the current standards?” Markey asked.

Wheeler said he did not know, but consumers would save $500 billion from cars being cheaper.

Some Midwestern senators were angry that Wheeler is continuing Pruitt’s policy under the federal ethanol mandate of granting waivers to small refineries.

“You’ve taken care of the small refineries. What about the small farmers?” asked Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsGOP senator: Trump thinks funding deal is 'thin gruel' Lawmakers put Pentagon's cyber in their sights Endorsing Trump isn’t the easiest decision for some Republicans MORE (R-S.D.)

“What about the folks who are producing on a year to year basis just enough to get by at a time when we’ve got trade issues in front of us, at a time when they’re expecting that the [renewable fuel standard] would be honored by the federal government that we made several years ago,” he continued.

Wheeler said EPA is working to improve transparency on refinery waivers and trying to determine what it can do to make up for the biofuel volume that gets waived.