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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 Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight Whitehouse says Democratic caucus will decide future of Judiciary Committee 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: Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee | Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects | Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight Senate advances energy regulator nominees despite uncertainty of floor vote Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee 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 CapitoAs Biden administration ramps up, Trump legal effort drags on The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump holds his last turkey pardon ceremony The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience MORE (R-W.Va.).

Wheeler would succeed Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittMajor unions back Fudge for Agriculture secretary Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight Democratic lawmaker calls for DOJ investigation of entire Trump administration 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: Trump orders troop drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq | Key Republicans call Trump plan a 'mistake' Top Democrat calls Trump's Afghan drawdown 'the right policy decision' as others warn of 'mistake' Overnight Defense: Another Defense official resigns | Pentagon chief says military 'remains strong' despite purge | Top contender for Biden DOD secretary would be historic pick 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 CarperOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Kerry says Paris climate deal alone 'is not enough' | EPA halts planned Taiwan trip for Wheeler| EPA sued over rule extending life of toxic coal ash ponds Overnight Energy: Biden names John Kerry as 'climate czar' | GM reverses on Trump, exits suit challenging California's tougher emissions standards | United Nations agency says greenhouse gas emissions accumulating despite lockdown decline GSA transition delay 'poses serious risk' to Native Americans, Udall says MORE (D-Dela.), the panel’s ranking member.

Republican Sen. Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanTrump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol Capitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview 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 SandersThe Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Clyburn: Biden falling short on naming Black figures to top posts Prepare for buyers' remorse when Biden/Harris nationalize health care 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 MarkeyEd MarkeyUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally 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 TrumpVenezuela judge orders prison time for 6 American oil executives Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation 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 CardinDemocratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry On The Money: Biden, Democratic leaders push for lame-duck coronavirus deal | Business groups shudder at Sanders as Labor secretary | Congress could pass retirement bill as soon as this year Top Democrat: Congress could pass retirement bill as soon as this year 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 - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Calls mount to start transition as Biden readies Cabinet picks Pressure grows from GOP for Trump to recognize Biden election win Sunday shows - Virus surge dominates ahead of fraught Thanksgiving holiday 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.