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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 TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' 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 eases permitting for modifications to polluting facilities | Rocky Mountain National Park closed due to expanding Colorado wildfire | Trump order strips workplace protections from civil servants EPA eases permitting for modifications to polluting facilities Overnight Energy: Barrett punts on climate, oil industry recusals | Ex-EPA official claims retaliation in lawsuit | Dems seek to uphold ruling ousting Pendley 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 MarkeyOcasio-Cortez says having Green New Deal would have helped handle COVID-19 pandemic OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats push expansion of offshore wind, block offshore drilling with ocean energy bill | Poll: Two-thirds of voters support Biden climate plan | Biden plan lags Green New Deal in fighting emissions from homes Biden plan lags Green New Deal in fighting emissions from homes 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 CarperOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats allege EPA plans to withhold funding from 'anarchist' cities | Montana asks court to throw out major public lands decisions after ousting BLM director | It's unknown if fee reductions given to oil producers prevented shutdowns Democrats allege EPA plans to withhold funding from 'anarchist' cities Energy innovation bill can deliver jobs and climate progress 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 BarrassoSenate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus Hillicon Valley: Senate panel votes to subpoena Big Tech executives | Amazon says over 19,000 workers tested positive for COVID-19 | Democrats demand DHS release report warning of election interference GOP senators call on Trump to oppose nationalizing 5G 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) ManchinDemocratic Senate emerges as possible hurdle for progressives  Susan Collins and the American legacy Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein MORE (W.Va.) is still in the Senate, while the other two, Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by JobsOhio - Showdown: Trump-Biden debate likely to be nasty Senate Democrats want to avoid Kavanaugh 2.0 Harris faces pivotal moment with Supreme Court battle MORE (N.D.) and 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.), lost reelection last year.