Dems blast EPA nominee at confirmation hearing

Dems blast EPA nominee at confirmation hearing
© Stefani Reynolds

Acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Andrew Wheeler faced harsh criticisms from Senate Democrats Wednesday over what they see as inaction on a climate change “crisis.”

Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee faulted Wheeler for the EPA’s roll-back of Obama-era policies on greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and other issues, arguing Wheeler’s continued leadership at the EPA would harm the nation’s environment.

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“Substantively I continue to believe that you have your thumb, wrist, forearm and elbow on the scales in virtually every determination that you can in favor of the fossil fuel industry, and that’s very unfortunate,” Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseSenate Democrats push Trump to permanently shutter migrant detention facility To cash in on innovation, remove market barriers for advanced energy technologies Democrats give cold shoulder to Warren wealth tax MORE (D-RI.) told Wheeler, a former energy lobbyist whose clients include a major coal mining company.

Democrats can’t block Wheeler’s confirmation on their own in a Senate led by a majority of 53 Republicans. And GOP lawmakers appear to be standing insolidarity behind Wheeler.

“I believe Acting Administrator Wheeler has done an outstanding job leading the EPA these past six months,” said Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoIf Democrats want gun control, they must first concede defeat Conway: Republican concerns about gun reform 'all reconcilable' Five proposals Congress is eyeing after mass shootings MORE (R-Wyo.), the Environment Committee’s chairman.

“Under Acting Administrator Wheeler’s leadership, the agency has taken a number of significant actions to protect our nation’s environment, while also supporting economic growth,” he said.

“I know that you have been a great acting administrator at the EPA, and would certainly fill that role in a permanent capacity,” said Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoAmerica is in desperate need of infrastructure investment: Senate highway bill a step in the right direction On The Money: Economy adds 164K jobs in July | Trump signs two-year budget deal, but border showdown looms | US, EU strike deal on beef exports Trump border fight throws curveball into shutdown prospects MORE (R-W.Va.).

Wheeler would succeed Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEnvironmentalists renew bid to overturn EPA policy barring scientists from advisory panels Six states sue EPA over pesticide tied to brain damage Overnight Energy: Trump EPA looks to change air pollution permit process | GOP senators propose easing Obama water rule | Green group sues EPA over lead dust rules MORE, who resigned in a cloud of controversy.

Several lawmakers credited Wheeler for a shift in tone that was apparent at the hearing.

Sen. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthOvernight Defense: Dems talk Afghanistan, nukes at Detroit debate | Senate panel advances Hyten nomination | Iranian foreign minister hit with sanctions | Senate confirms UN ambassador Senate committee advances nomination of general accused of sexual assault Overnight Defense: General accused of sexual assault to get confirmation hearing | Senate to vote Monday on overriding Saudi arms deal veto | Next Joint Chiefs chair confirmed | Graham tries to ease Turkey tensions MORE (D-Ill.) thanked Wheeler for his accessability.

“It’s been a nice change to your predecessor,” she said.

“Mr. Wheeler is certainly not the ethical bereft embarrassment that Scott Pruitt proved to be,” said Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperAmerica is in desperate need of infrastructure investment: Senate highway bill a step in the right direction FARA should apply to Confucius Institutes The 23 Republicans who opposed Trump-backed budget deal MORE (D-Dela.), the panel’s ranking member.

Republican Sen. Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanOvernight Defense: Esper sworn in as Pentagon chief | Confirmed in 90-8 vote | Takes helm as Trump juggles foreign policy challenges | Senators meet with woman accusing defense nominee of sexual assault Alarm sounds over census cybersecurity concerns Senate sets new voting record with Iran war measure MORE (Alaska) said he too noticed the change.

“I appreciate also the time you spent with me. I think one of the themes here is how responsive you are to Democrats and Republicans. I know that’s one of the important parts of the job.”

While there has been a shift in tone, however, the policies of the EPA under Wheeler have been largely similar to those under Pruitt, and his confirmation vote is likely to be along partisan lines.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Keystone XL Pipeline gets nod from Nebraska Supreme Court MORE (I-Vt.) slammed Wheeler for not meeting the challenge of a climate change “crisis.”

“The scientific community has said that climate change is one of the great crises facing our planet. And if there is not unprecedented action to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel, to sustainable energy and energy efficiency, there will be irreparable damage in the United States and virtually every country on earth,” he said.

Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyMoulton drops out of presidential race after struggling to gain traction Joseph Kennedy mulling primary challenge to Markey in Massachusetts Overnight Energy: Trump sparks new fight over endangered species protections | States sue over repeal of Obama power plant rules | Interior changes rules for ethics watchdogs MORE (D-Mass.) focused his criticism on Wheeler’s proposals to roll back car fuel efficiency rules and carbon dioxide standards for power plants.

“You’re putting up a smokescreen to ensure that there’s an advancement of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch To ward off recession, Trump should keep his mouth and smartphone shut Trump: 'Who is our bigger enemy,' Fed chief or Chinese leader? MORE’s dirty policies. And the impact to ordinary families, their health, the health of our country, the security of our country, is absolutely urgent,” he told Wheeler.

“The American people want higher fuel economy standards, they want higher standards to reduce pollutants going into the lungs of the people in our country.”

Wheeler sought to downplay climate concerns in response to the criticisms.

"I believe climate change is a global issue that must be addressed globally,” he said. “I would not call it the greatest crisis."

Democrats also criticized Wheeler for the government shutdown, which has left most of the EPA on furlough.

“Our priority should be reopening our government, certainly reopening EPA and other federal agencies,” Carper said.

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinAmerica is in desperate need of infrastructure investment: Senate highway bill a step in the right direction Financial aid fraud is wrong — but overcorrection could hurt more students Democrats denounce Trump's attack on Cummings: 'These are not the words of a patriot' MORE (D-Md.) called the shutdown “dangerous.”

“It’s devastating to the individuals who are involved, to their families, to paying their bills, but to missions that these agencies have to carry out,” he said. “To me, it’s not possible, under these circumstances, for EPA to carry out their mission to protect our environment, clean air and clean water.”

GOP senators cheered Wheeler’s actions in rolling back Obama-era rules intended to raise fuel economy standards and protect U.S. waterways. Republicans have argued the regulatory moves would hurt the economy and cost the country jobs.

“I want to thank for your very good work on the rollback of the Waters of the U.S., and coming up with what I’m sure is a much commonsense and legal definition,” said Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerCastro, Steyer join pledge opposing the Keystone XL pipeline EPA proposes rolling back states' authority over pipeline projects GOP senator held up Trump aide's confirmation to get info on border wall contracts MORE (R-N.D.).

“Same with regard to the Clean Power Plan being replaced with ACE," he continued referring to the Affordable Clean Energy rule, the proposed replacement for the Obama administration's carbon rule for power plants.