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 WhitehouseThe DNC's climate problems run deep The Hill's Morning Report - Democrats wonder: Can Nadler handle the Trump probe? The Hill's Morning Report - Democrats wonder: Can Nadler handle the Trump probe? 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 BarrassoBipartisan senators propose forcing EPA to set drinking water standard for 'forever chemicals' Bipartisan senators propose forcing EPA to set drinking water standard for 'forever chemicals' Trump hails D-Day veterans in Normandy: 'You are the pride of our nation' 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 CapitoBipartisan senators propose forcing EPA to set drinking water standard for 'forever chemicals' Bipartisan senators propose forcing EPA to set drinking water standard for 'forever chemicals' August recess under threat as yearly spending bills pile up MORE (R-W.Va.).

Wheeler would succeed Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittTrump directs agencies to cut advisory boards by 'at least' one-third Trump directs agencies to cut advisory boards by 'at least' one-third Overnight Energy: Former EPA chiefs say Trump has abandoned agency's mission | Trump in Iowa touts ethanol and knocks Biden | Greens sue Trump over drilling safety rollbacks | FDA downplays worries over 'forever chemicals' 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: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments Overnight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments Senators revive effort to create McCain human rights commission 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 CarperBipartisan senators propose forcing EPA to set drinking water standard for 'forever chemicals' Bipartisan senators propose forcing EPA to set drinking water standard for 'forever chemicals' Overnight Energy: Prosecutors drop charges over Flint water crisis | US blames Iran for attack on oil tankers | Air Force diverted M for chemical cleanup costs | Criminal cases referred by Interior at near 25-year low MORE (D-Dela.), the panel’s ranking member.

Republican Sen. Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanSenators weigh potential security risks from Chinese-made drones August recess under threat as yearly spending bills pile up August recess under threat as yearly spending bills pile up 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 SandersFive takeaways from Trump's 2020 kickoff rally Five takeaways from Trump's 2020 kickoff rally Sanders tears into Trump in response to campaign kickoff rally 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 MarkeySenators weigh potential security risks from Chinese-made drones Hillicon Valley: GOP senator wants one agency to run tech probes | Huawei expects to lose B in sales from US ban | Self-driving car bill faces tough road ahead | Elon Musk tweets that he 'deleted' his Twitter account Hillicon Valley: GOP senator wants one agency to run tech probes | Huawei expects to lose B in sales from US ban | Self-driving car bill faces tough road ahead | Elon Musk tweets that he 'deleted' his Twitter account 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 TrumpGOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally 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 CardinProposed bipartisan kidney legislation takes on kidney disease epidemic in America Lawmakers raise security concerns about China building NYC subway cars House votes to boost retirement savings 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 CramerThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump pushes Mexico for 'significantly more' as tariffs loom The Hill's Morning Report — Trump pushes Mexico for 'significantly more' as tariffs loom Overnight Health Care: Liberals rip Democratic leaders for writing drug pricing bill in secret | Dems demand answers from company that shelters migrant kids | Measles cases top 1,000 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.