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

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump reversed course on flavored e-cigarette ban over fear of job losses: report Trump to award National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight Sondland notified Trump officials of investigation push ahead of Ukraine call: report 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 PruittWhat has EPA been hiding about formaldehyde? Overnight Energy: Trump officials suspend oil, gas production on Utah plots after lawsuit | California bucks Trump on lightbulb rollback | Scientists join Dems in panning EPA's 'secret science' rule Scientists join Democrats in panning EPA's 'secret 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 InhofeOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families GOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families 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: BLM staff face choice of relocation or resignation as agency moves | Trump says he's 'very much into climate' | EPA rule would expand limits on scientific studies Democrats give Warren's 'Medicare for All' plan the cold shoulder Liz Cheney applauds Trump for pulling out of Paris climate agreement 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 BarrassoCentrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda Eleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid GOP senators discuss impeachment with Trump after House vote 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 — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same Trump wins 60 percent approval in rural areas of key states Pence to push new NAFTA deal in visit to Iowa MORE (N.D.), Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyWatchdog accuses pro-Kavanaugh group of sending illegal robotexts in 2018 Lobbying world Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand MORE (Ind.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinFormer coal exec Don Blankenship launches third-party presidential bid Centrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda Overnight Energy: Senate eyes nixing 'forever chemicals' fix from defense bill | Former Obama EPA chief named CEO of green group | Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics 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.