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

President TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech 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 proposes reapproving uses of pesticide linked to brain damage in children | Hispanic caucus unhappy with transition team treatment of Lujan Grisham | Schwarzenegger backs Nichols to lead EPA EPA proposes reapproving uses of pesticide linked to brain damage in children EPA's scientific integrity in question over science rule 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 InhofeHillicon Valley: Government used Patriot Act to gather website visitor logs in 2019 | Defense bill leaves out Section 230 repeal, includes White House cyber czar position | Officials warn hackers are targeting vaccine supply chain Lawmakers release compromise defense bill without Section 230 repeal Compromise defense bill offers rebuke of Trump's Germany drawdown 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 ENERGY: Kerry says Paris climate deal alone 'is not enough' | EPA halts planned Taiwan trip for Wheeler| EPA sued over rule extending life of toxic coal ash ponds Overnight Energy: Biden names John Kerry as 'climate czar' | GM reverses on Trump, exits suit challenging California's tougher emissions standards | United Nations agency says greenhouse gas emissions accumulating despite lockdown decline GSA transition delay 'poses serious risk' to Native Americans, Udall says 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 BarrassoOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee | Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects | Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight Senate advances energy regulator nominees despite uncertainty of floor vote Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee 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 HeitkampThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Congress inches closer to virus relief deal The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates Grassley suggests moderate Democrats for next Agriculture secretary MORE (N.D.), Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyBiden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big Harris walks fine line on Barrett as election nears The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by JobsOhio - Showdown: Trump-Biden debate likely to be nasty MORE (Ind.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSanders says he can't support bipartisan COVID-19 relief proposal in its current form Progressives push for direct payments to be included in COVID-19 relief deal Rubio and Ocasio-Cortez spar on Twitter: 'Work more, tweet less' 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.