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 admin appeals ruling ordering EPA to ban pesticide Government watchdog probing EPA’s handling of Hurricane Harvey response Wheeler won’t stop America’s addiction to fossil fuels 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 CarperTrump Jr. to Dem Senator: 'You admitted to hitting your wife so hard it gave her a black eye!' Melania Trump's spokeswoman gets Hatch Act warning for #MAGA tweet EPA to abandon restrictions against chemical linked to climate change 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 BarrassoTrump privately calls Mattis ‘Moderate Dog’: report Push to change wildlife act sparks lobbying blitz House and Senate negotiators reach agreement on water infrastructure bill 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 TrumpHouse Republican threatens to push for Rosenstein impeachment unless he testifies Judge suggests Trump’s tweet about Stormy Daniels was ‘hyperbole’ not defamation Rosenstein faces Trump showdown 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 WhitehouseKavanaugh accuser agrees to testify next week Dem vows to probe 'why the FBI stood down' on Kavanaugh Senate Democrats increase pressure for FBI investigation of Kavanaugh 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 InhofePentagon releases report on sexual assault risk Trump privately calls Mattis ‘Moderate Dog’: report Cruz gets help from Senate GOP in face of serious challenge from O’Rourke 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 MarkeyThis week: Kavanaugh nomination thrown into further chaos Overnight Defense: Mattis dismisses talk he may be leaving | Polish president floats 'Fort Trump' | Dem bill would ban low-yield nukes Dems introduce bill to ban low-yield nukes 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 RoundsOn The Money: Treasury rules target blue-state workarounds to tax law | Senate approves sweeping defense, domestic spending bill | US imposes B in tariffs on Chinese goods | Panel narrowly approves consumer bureau pick Senate panel narrowly approves Trump consumer bureau pick GOP sen: Sessions is ‘the right man for the job’ 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.