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 PruittTrump directs agencies to cut advisory boards by 'at least' one-third Trump directs agencies to cut advisory boards by 'at least' one-third Overnight Energy: Former EPA chiefs say Trump has abandoned agency's mission | Trump in Iowa touts ethanol and knocks Biden | Greens sue Trump over drilling safety rollbacks | FDA downplays worries over 'forever chemicals' 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 CarperBipartisan senators propose forcing EPA to set drinking water standard for 'forever chemicals' Bipartisan senators propose forcing EPA to set drinking water standard for 'forever chemicals' Overnight Energy: Prosecutors drop charges over Flint water crisis | US blames Iran for attack on oil tankers | Air Force diverted M for chemical cleanup costs | Criminal cases referred by Interior at near 25-year low 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 BarrassoBipartisan senators propose forcing EPA to set drinking water standard for 'forever chemicals' Bipartisan senators propose forcing EPA to set drinking water standard for 'forever chemicals' Trump hails D-Day veterans in Normandy: 'You are the pride of our nation' 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 TrumpTrump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump tweets ICE will begin removing 'millions' of undocumented migrants 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 WhitehouseThe Hill's Morning Report - Democrats wonder: Can Nadler handle the Trump probe? The Hill's Morning Report - Democrats wonder: Can Nadler handle the Trump probe? Democrats hope some presidential candidates drop out — and run for Senate  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 InhofeSenate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales Senate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales Shanahan: 'No concerns' about FBI background check for nomination 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 MarkeyHillicon Valley: GOP senator wants one agency to run tech probes | Huawei expects to lose B in sales from US ban | Self-driving car bill faces tough road ahead | Elon Musk tweets that he 'deleted' his Twitter account Hillicon Valley: GOP senator wants one agency to run tech probes | Huawei expects to lose B in sales from US ban | Self-driving car bill faces tough road ahead | Elon Musk tweets that he 'deleted' his Twitter account Overnight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments 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 RoundsHouse panel advances bill to create cybersecurity standards for government IT devices House panel advances bill to create cybersecurity standards for government IT devices The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa 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.