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 WhitehouseFederal judges should be allowed to be Federalist Society members Warren condemns 'horrific' Trump tweet on Minneapolis protests, other senators chime in IRS proposes guidance for expanded carbon capture tax credit 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 BarrassoIRS proposes guidance for expanded carbon capture tax credit No better time to modernize America's energy infrastructure EPA's Wheeler grilled by Democrats over environmental rollbacks amid COVID-19 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 CapitoSenate Republicans urge Trump to tone down rhetoric on protests Trump tries to soothe anxious GOP senators The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - In reversal, Trump says he won't disband coronavirus task force MORE (R-W.Va.).

Wheeler would succeed Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittTrump official violated ethics rules in seeking EPA job for relative, watchdog finds Pelosi hammers Pompeo, Trump: 'Scandalous' to dismiss IGs EPA emails reveal talks between Trump officials, chemical group before 2017 settlement 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 DuckworthCalls for police reform sparks divisions in Congress Trump stokes backlash with threat to use military against protesters Biden unveils disability rights plan: 'Your voices must be heard' 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 CarperMail ballot surge places Postal Service under spotlight Democratic unity starts to crack in coronavirus liability reform fight The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump threatens coronavirus funds for states easing voting MORE (D-Dela.), the panel’s ranking member.

Republican Sen. Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanGOP senators urge Trump not to restrict guest worker visas Energy secretary accuses banks of 'redlining' oil and gas industry Postal Service to review package fee policy: report 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 SandersBiden wins DC primary Biden wins Montana primary Biden wins New Mexico primary 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 MarkeyGOP Massachusetts governor: Trump's compassion 'nowhere to be found' Markey calls Trump 'scum' over comments on George Floyd protests Bipartisan senators call for investigation of TikTok's child privacy policies 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 TrumpTrump says inviting Russia to G7 'a question of common sense' Pentagon chief does not support invoking Insurrection Act Dershowitz: Does President Trump have power to declare martial law? 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 CardinCalls for police reform sparks divisions in Congress This week: Senate reconvenes as protests roil nation amid pandemic Schumer to GOP: Cancel 'conspiracy hearings' on origins of Russia probe 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 CramerTrump tries to soothe anxious GOP senators Trump cites 'Obamagate' in urging GOP to get 'tough' on Democrats Obama tweets 'vote' after Trump promotes 'Obamagate' 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.