EPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks

EPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks
© Anna Moneymaker

Acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Andrew Wheeler will face a Senate grilling Wednesday on the aggressive deregulatory actions he’s undertaken during the last six months as head of the agency.

He will testify at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on President TrumpDonald John TrumpMcCabe says he was fired because he 'opened a case against' Trump McCabe: Trump said 'I don't care, I believe Putin' when confronted with US intel on North Korea McCabe: Trump talked to me about his election victory during 'bizarre' job interview MORE’s nomination for him to be the official administrator of the EPA.

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Wheeler is no stranger to Capitol Hill. He was confirmed by the Senate to be deputy administrator and has been in charge at the EPA since former chief Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: EPA to make formal decision on regulating drinking water contaminant | Utility to close coal plant despite Trump plea | Greens say climate is high on 2020 voters’ minds EPA to announce PFAS chemical regulation plans by end of year Court tosses challenge to EPA's exclusion of certain scientists from advisory boards MORE was forced out under pressure from ethics and spending allegations in July 2018.

His first appearance before Congress since August is likely to focus on his efforts at the EPA's helm to scale back regulations, including moving to undo the climate change rules for power plants, cars and oil drillers, and federal protections for small waterways like wetlands and streams.

Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyGOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats Green New Deal Resolution invites big picture governing We can have a Green New Deal, and air travel too MORE (D-Mass.), who sits on the Environment and Public Works Committee, told The Hill he’s expecting the hearing to feature “very tough questions on his relationship to the coal industry, pollution and harming the public health of Americans.”

Democrats on the panel are likely to be united in their opposition to Wheeler — and to make that clear during the hearing.

“When Andrew Wheeler was first selected to be Acting Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, I urged him to restore public trust in the agency by heeding lessons of the past and by remedying some of Scott Pruitt’s most egregious actions and proposals. He has not done so,” Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperDems slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants EPA to announce PFAS chemical regulation plans by end of year Overnight Energy: Zinke joins Trump-tied lobbying firm | Senators highlight threat from invasive species | Top Republican calls for Green New Deal vote in House MORE (Del.), the committee’s top Democrat, said in a statement.

“I’ve been very disappointed in Acting Administrator Wheeler’s performance with regard to making progress on those issues and to charting a new course for the agency’s future.”

Carper told reporters Tuesday that he wants to know what Wheeler is doing to help the environment. 

“He was asked a number of months ago about what are some, maybe several things, where the environment is being enhanced under his watch? And I’m told he didn’t have anything to offer. So that might be a good question to answer,” he said, seemingly referring to Wheeler's remarks at a Washington Post event in November.

Carper also plans to press Wheeler on the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles rule, a proposal with the Department of Transportation that would freeze car efficiency levels in 2021 and cancel future plans to make them more stringent through 2026.

Republicans have stood strongly behind Wheeler and applauded his agenda as a positive for businesses.

Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoDems slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants Overnight Energy: Zinke joins Trump-tied lobbying firm | Senators highlight threat from invasive species | Top Republican calls for Green New Deal vote in House Senators highlight threat from invasive species MORE (R-Wyo.), the committee chairman, said Wheeler “has done an outstanding job leading EPA and is well qualified to run the agency on a permanent basis.”

Wheeler has overseen movement on some of the most consequential pieces of Trump’s agenda and promises from the 2016 campaign. 

In addition to the vehicles rule, the EPA has proposed the Affordable Clean Energy rule as a weaker replacement for the Obama administration’s carbon dioxide limits for power plants. EPA has also proposed a new Waters of the United States rule which would remove federal protections from many small waterways and numerous other rollbacks, in areas like chemical plant safety and methane emissions from oil and natural gas drilling.

Democrats and their environmental allies have argued that Barrasso is rushing the process to confirm Wheeler and it should be slowed down, particularly since most of the EPA's workforce is furloughed during the ongoing government shutdown.

Trump made Wheeler’s nomination official on Jan. 9. Barrasso announced the hearing date, set for one week away, the same day.

“I don’t see a real rush,” Carper said. “I think given the fact that there’s a limited number of folks at EPA who could actually be out doing their day jobs out in the field and working on environmental issues, to be pulling people back in to get ready for a hearing, which is really being rushed, just makes no sense.”

Carper and other Democrats on the panel wrote to Wheeler last week questioning whether the agency employees helping him prepare for the hearing are legally allowed to work during the shutdown.

“It is difficult to understand how preparing you for next week’s confirmation hearing credibly falls within any of the categories listed in EPA’s Contingency Plan, particularly the category of employee that is ‘necessary to protect life and property.’ Using EPA resources in this manner may also run afoul of the Antideficiency Act,” they said.

But Matt Leopold, EPA’s general counsel, said the agency is following the law.

“EPA has excepted a limited number of employees to prepare the Acting Administrator for the hearing on January 16th,” he said.

“Participation in and preparation for a confirmation hearing that has been scheduled by Congress is clearly excepted under Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel, opinions.”

Leaders from major environmental groups including the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club wrote to Barrasso last week and asked him to delay the proceedings.

“It is profoundly unfair for Mr. Wheeler to audition for a promotion to lead an agency while the entire agency workforce is locked out and denied their paychecks, making it difficult to pay their bills and mortgages and provide for their families,” the leaders wrote.

Despite their protests, Wheeler is nearly certain to be confirmed. The Environment and Public Works Committee has 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats, and the full Senate has 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats.

Just three Democrats joined Republicans in April 2018 in voting to confirm Wheeler as deputy administrator. Only one of them, Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSenate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general GOP wants to pit Ocasio-Cortez against Democrats in the Senate Senate poised to confirm Trump’s attorney general pick MORE (W.Va.) is still in the Senate, while the other two, Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampOvernight Energy: Trump taps ex-oil lobbyist Bernhardt to lead Interior | Bernhardt slams Obama officials for agency's ethics issues | Head of major green group steps down Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary On The Money: Shutdown Day 27 | Trump fires back at Pelosi by canceling her foreign travel | Dems blast 'petty' move | Trump also cancels delegation to Davos | House votes to disapprove of Trump lifting Russia sanction MORE (N.D.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyOvernight Energy: Trump taps ex-oil lobbyist Bernhardt to lead Interior | Bernhardt slams Obama officials for agency's ethics issues | Head of major green group steps down Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary EPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks MORE (Ind.), lost reelection last year.