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

President TrumpDonald John TrumpLiz Cheney: 'Send her back' chant 'inappropriate' but not about race, gender Booker: Trump is 'worse than a racist' Top Democrat insists country hasn't moved on from Mueller 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: EPA halts surprise inspections of power, chemical plants | Regulators decline to ban pesticide linked to brain damage | NY awards country's largest offshore wind energy contracts EPA allows continued use of pesticide linked with brain damage Overnight Energy: Trump officials gut DC staff for public lands agency to move West | Democrats slam EPA over scientific boards | Deepwater Horizon most litigated environmental issue of decade 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 panel advances Pentagon chief, Joint Chiefs chairman nominees Trump's pick to lead Pentagon glides through confirmation hearing Trump says US will not sell Turkey F-35s after Russian missile defense system purchase 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 CarperFighting the opioid epidemic: Congress can't just pass laws, but must also push to enforce them Overnight Energy: Scientists flee USDA as research agencies move to Kansas City area | Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules to put industry reps on boards | New rule to limit ability to appeal pollution permits Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules when appointing industry leaders to science boards 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 BarrassoPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator EPA hails Trump's work on reducing air pollution House passes bill to crack down on toxic 'forever chemicals' 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 HeitkampTrump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand McConnell's Democratic challenger McGrath backtracks on Kavanaugh comments McConnell's Democratic challenger says she likely would have voted for Kavanaugh MORE (N.D.), Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyTrump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries McConnell's Democratic challenger McGrath backtracks on Kavanaugh comments MORE (Ind.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Dems open to killing filibuster in next Congress Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand 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.