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 PruittEnvironmentalists renew bid to overturn EPA policy barring scientists from advisory panels Six states sue EPA over pesticide tied to brain damage Overnight Energy: Trump EPA looks to change air pollution permit process | GOP senators propose easing Obama water rule | Green group sues EPA over lead dust rules 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 CarperAmerica is in desperate need of infrastructure investment: Senate highway bill a step in the right direction FARA should apply to Confucius Institutes The 23 Republicans who opposed Trump-backed budget deal 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 BarrassoIf Democrats want gun control, they must first concede defeat Conway: Republican concerns about gun reform 'all reconcilable' Five proposals Congress is eyeing after mass shootings 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 TrumpThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch To ward off recession, Trump should keep his mouth and smartphone shut Trump: 'Who is our bigger enemy,' Fed chief or Chinese leader? 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 WhitehouseSenate Democrats push Trump to permanently shutter migrant detention facility To cash in on innovation, remove market barriers for advanced energy technologies Democrats give cold shoulder to Warren wealth tax 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 Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Democrats, environmentalists blast Trump rollback of endangered species protections Bottom Line 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 MarkeyMoulton drops out of presidential race after struggling to gain traction Joseph Kennedy mulling primary challenge to Markey in Massachusetts Overnight Energy: Trump sparks new fight over endangered species protections | States sue over repeal of Obama power plant rules | Interior changes rules for ethics watchdogs 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 RoundsThe Hill's Morning Report - Progressives, centrists clash in lively Democratic debate Senate braces for brawl over Trump's spy chief Overnight Defense: Esper sworn in as Pentagon chief | Confirmed in 90-8 vote | Takes helm as Trump juggles foreign policy challenges | Senators meet with woman accusing defense nominee of sexual assault 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.