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 WhitehouseHillicon Valley: Washington preps for Mueller report | Barr to hold Thursday presser | Lawmakers dive into AI ethics | FCC chair moves to block China Mobile | Dem bill targets 'digital divide' | Microsoft denies request for facial recognition tech Dems introduce bill to tackle 'digital divide' Senators press drug industry 'middlemen' over high prices 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 BarrassoOvernight Energy: Gillibrand offers bill to ban pesticide from school lunches | Interior secretary met tribal lawyer tied to Zinke casino dispute | Critics say EPA rule could reintroduce asbestos use GOP senator issues stark warning to Republicans on health care Judd Gregg: In praise of Mike Enzi 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 Capito20 Dems demand no more money for ICE agents, Trump wall We can accelerate a cure for Alzheimer's Gillibrand, Grassley reintroduce campus sexual assault bill MORE (R-W.Va.).

Wheeler would succeed Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittFormer EPA chief Scott Pruitt registers as lobbyist in Indiana We're not effectively protecting Americans from measles, air pollution or food poisoning The problem for Trump appointees 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 DuckworthWarren, Gillibrand ask Defense whether border deployments hurt troop readiness Overnight Energy: Bipartisan Senate group seeks more funding for carbon capture technology | Dems want documents on Interior pick's lobbying work | Officials push to produce more electric vehicle batteries in US Bipartisan senators want 'highest possible' funding for carbon capture technology 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 CarperOnly four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates Koch network launches ad campaign opposing Trump's proposed gas tax Big Dem names show little interest in Senate MORE (D-Dela.), the panel’s ranking member.

Republican Sen. Dan SullivanDaniel Scott Sullivan Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 Republicans defend McCain amid Trump attacks Overnight Defense: Senate rejects border emergency in rebuke to Trump | Acting Pentagon chief grilled on wall funding | Warren confronts chief over war fund budget 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 SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersButtigieg says he wouldn't be opposed to having Phish play at his inauguration Sanders announces first endorsements in South Carolina Poll: Buttigieg surges into contention with Biden, Sanders 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 MarkeyBen & Jerry's backs Green New Deal: 'We have to act now' Warren praises Ocasio-Cortez in Time 100 The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump, Dems prep for Mueller report's release 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 TrumpButtigieg on Mueller report: 'Politically, I'm not sure it will change much' Sarah Sanders addresses false statements detailed in Mueller report: 'A slip of the tongue' Trump to visit Japan in May to meet with Abe, new emperor 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 CardinOnly four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates Senate Dem: Trump 'using immigrants as pawns' Bottom Line 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 CramerCain says he 'won't run away from criticism' in push for Fed seat Cain says he won't back down, wants to be nominated to Fed Conservatives urge Trump to stick with Moore for Fed 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.