Trump to nominate former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as next EPA administrator

President TrumpDonald John TrumpProsecutors investigating Trump inaugural fund, pro-Trump super PAC for possible illegal foreign donations: NY Times George Conway: Why take Trump's word over prosecutors' if he 'lies about virtually everything' Federal judge says lawsuit over Trump travel ban waivers will proceed MORE said he plans to nominate Andrew Wheeler, acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency, to be the EPA's Senate-confirmed administrator.

Trump made the announcement Friday during a White House ceremony for Medal of Freedom recipients.

He said Wheeler “is going to be made permanent,” adding that “he’s done a fantastic job and I want to congratulate him.”

“Congratulations, Andrew,” Trump said.

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Before becoming administrator, Trump will have to submit Wheeler's nomination to the Senate. A majority of senators would then need to confirm Wheeler.

Wheeler became acting administrator in July, when then-EPA chief Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy — Sponsored by the National Biodiesel Board — Court blocks Atlantic coast pipeline | Kerry calls Trump climate actions 'profoundly dangerous' | EPA asked to investigate Pruitt Fox News hits Watchdog groups call on EPA to probe past interaction with Fox News Trump moves to relax Obama-era water protections MORE resigned amid numerous spending and ethics scandals. Wheeler at the time was the EPA’s deputy administrator, a Senate-confirmed position he assumed in April.

Before working for the government, Wheeler was a lobbyist and lawyer for energy companies such as coal mining giant Murray Energy Corp.

Earlier in his career, Wheeler worked as a senior aide to Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeSenate Armed Services chair not convinced of need for Trump's Space Force Overnight Defense: Senate moves toward vote on bill ending support for Saudi war | House GOP blocks Yemen war votes for rest of year | Trump throws uncertainty into Pentagon budget | Key Dem to leave transgender troop ban to courts The Year Ahead: Trump throws uncertainty into Pentagon budget MORE (R-Okla.), who previously led the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He started out his career at the EPA, working as a career employee on toxic substances policy.

The White House did not return a request for comment or to clarify Trump’s remarks, nor did the EPA.

Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOvernight Health Care — Sponsored by Amgen — ObamaCare signups lag behind last year despite recent surge | Drug company offers cheaper opioid overdose treatment after hiking price 600 percent | CDC calls fentanyl deadliest drug in US Drug company to offer cheaper opioid overdose treatment after hiking price 600 percent Overnight Energy: Trump adviser Kudlow seeks end to electric car, renewable energy credits | Shell to pay execs based on carbon reduction | Justices reject greens' border wall lawsuit MORE (Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — which would handle the initial hearing and vote on Wheeler's nomination — didn't completely write off Wheeler as a potential administrator.

Carper has made known his preference for Wheeler over Pruitt. The senator said Wheeler is worse at the job than past Republican administrators William Ruckelshaus and Christine Todd Whitman.

"If the president intends to nominate Andrew Wheeler to be the Administrator of EPA, then Mr. Wheeler must come before our committee so that members can look at his record as acting administrator objectively to see if any improvements have been made at the agency since he took the helm," he said in a statement.

Wheeler has brought a quieter voice than Pruitt to the EPA and has avoided the nearly constant scandals that dogged Pruitt in his final six months in office, but he has still aggressively pursued a deregulatory agenda.

He has overseen some of the most consequential EPA actions on behalf of Trump, such as rolling out proposals to roll back or repeal limits on carbon dioxide pollution from power plants, car fuel efficiency standards and limits on methane pollution from oil and natural gas drillers.

“When President Trump called me to ask me to assume the duties of the acting administrator, he asked me to continue to clean up the air, clean up the water and continue deregulation in order to spur economic growth,” Wheeler told reporters in July when announcing a new report on air pollution.

Wheeler has faced many of the same policy-driven criticisms that Pruitt did from environmental groups, who contend that he is carrying out the agenda of polluting industries like coal and oil at the expense of public health.

The Sierra Club slammed Wheeler on Friday, saying that he should not be confirmed.

"Putting a coal lobbyist like Andrew Wheeler in charge of the EPA is like giving a thief the keys to a bank vault," said Michael Brune, the group's executive director. "There shouldn’t be a single day when the Administrator of the EPA schemes with corporate polluters to attack public health, but Wheeler has made it a regular habit because he is unable to give up his corporate polluter ties."

Trump hinted in October that he could nominate Wheeler for the post, saying at another White House event, “He’s acting, but he’s doing well, right? So maybe he won’t be so acting so long.”

He also has the support of the head of the committee that would be responsible for his confirmation.

Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoThe Year Ahead: Dems under pressure to deliver on green agenda White House jumps into fight over energy subsidies Clock ticks down on GOP Congress MORE (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in August, at Wheeler’s first hearing since becoming acting EPA chief, that he “would make an excellent administrator,” and encouraged Trump to tap him.

Wheeler was confirmed as deputy administrator by a vote of 53-45. Only three Democrats voted “yes”: Sens. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampHatch warns Senate 'in crisis' in farewell speech Dem senators Heitkamp, Donnelly urge bipartisanship in farewell speeches House passes bipartisan bill aimed at reversing rising maternal mortality rates MORE (N.D.), Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyHatch warns Senate 'in crisis' in farewell speech Dem senators Heitkamp, Donnelly urge bipartisanship in farewell speeches Schumer gets ready to go on the offensive MORE (Ind.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinOvernight Defense: Senate bucks Trump with Yemen war vote, resolution calling crown prince 'responsible' for Khashoggi killing | House briefing on Saudi Arabia fails to move needle | Inhofe casts doubt on Space Force Hillicon Valley — Presented by AT&T — New momentum for privacy legislation | YouTube purges spam videos | Apple plans B Austin campus | Iranian hackers targeted Treasury officials | FEC to let lawmakers use campaign funds for cyber Manchin puts hold on FCC nomination over wireless internet fund delay MORE (W.Va.). Donnelly and Heitkamp both lost in last week’s midterm elections.

The Federal Vacancies Reform Act usually prohibits nominees from working in an acting capacity in the position they were nominated in, which would prohibit Wheeler from being acting administrator from the time he is nominated until he is confirmed.

But, according to a former senior EPA official, the law carves out an exemption for officials who have been confirmed by the Senate to be the deputy of the position they act in, which would apply to Wheeler.

Miranda Green contributed. Updated 3:00 p.m.