Senate confirms Wheeler to lead EPA

Senate confirms Wheeler to lead EPA
© Stefani Reynolds

The Senate on Thursday voted to confirm Andrew Wheeler as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a 52-47 mostly party-line vote.

Every Democrat voted against Wheeler, while Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDemocrats step up pressure over witnesses after Bolton bombshell Impeachment manager dismisses concerns Schiff alienated key Republican votes: 'This isn't about any one person' Kaine: GOP senators should 'at least' treat Trump trial with seriousness of traffic court MORE (Maine) was the only Republican to vote against him.

Collins in a statement Wednesday said she would not vote for Wheeler, a former energy lobbyist, because of his track record backing policies that weaken rules protecting air pollution and lowering car emissions.

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“While Mr. Wheeler is certainly qualified for this position, I have too many concerns with the actions he has taken during his tenure as Acting Administrator to be able to support his promotion,” said Collins, who had backed confirming Wheeler last year to be EPA’s deputy administrator.

Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinDemocrats Manchin, Jones signal they're undecided on Trump removal vote Schiff sparks blowback with head on a 'pike' line Schiff closes Dems' impeachment arguments with emotional appeal to remove Trump MORE (W.Va.), the only Democrat who voted to confirm Wheeler as EPA’s deputy administrator, voted against him on Thursday. He cited Wheeler’s failure to make progress on clean drinking water standards, among other issues.

“When I voted to confirm Mr. Wheeler to be Deputy Administrator of the EPA, I did so because I thought the President deserved to have his team in place. I also believed that I could work with Mr. Wheeler,” Manchin said in a statement.

“Today, I voted against him to be the permanent Administrator of the EPA because as Acting Administrator, he hasn’t demonstrated a desire or a will to make any meaningful progress on clean drinking water standards and has rolled back clean air standards that are directly impacting West Virginians, both concerns that I have raised with him.”

Wheeler has led the EPA in an active capacity since former Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEPA employees push 'bill of rights' to protect scientific integrity EPA's independent science board questions underpinnings of numerous agency rollbacks Overnight Energy: Rate of new endangered species listings falls | EPA approves use of 'cyanide bombs' to protect livestock | Watchdog says EPA didn't conduct required analyses MORE resigned on the heels of ethics controversies in July. He will be the agency’s second leader under President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump denies telling Bolton Ukraine aid was tied to investigations Former senior Senate GOP aide says Republicans should call witnesses Title, release date revealed for Bolton memoir MORE. Trump nominated Wheeler to take over the role of EPA administrator in early January.

Responding to his confirmation, Wheeler tweeted Thursday that he was "humbled."

"It is truly humbling to serve the American public as EPA Administrator. I want to thank President Trump for nominating me and Leader McConnell and [Senate Natural Resources Committee] Chairman [John] Barrasso for navigating my confirmation through the Senate," Wheeler wrote.

"I am deeply honored, and I look forward to continuing the President’s agenda and the work of the Agency alongside all my EPA colleagues."

At his confirmation hearing, Wheeler doubled down on the EPA’s efforts under Trump to streamline environmental regulations, which in many instances meant dramatically re-writing, challenging and shrinking agency rules put in place under former President Obama.

Wheeler in his opening remarks highlighted 13 major deregulatory actions he had overseen in his six months heading the EPA on an acting basis, including proposals to roll back environmental regulations for power plants and vehicle emissions and protections for small waterways. He said it saved Americans “roughly $1.8 billion in regulatory costs.”

Democrats blasted Wheeler for continuing the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda, which included a dramatic drop in enforcement against polluters.

But several lawmakers credited Wheeler for a shift in tone from Pruitt.

Sen. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthAmtrak ends policy that led to K charge for activists using wheelchairs #MidnightMoscowMitch trends amid criticism of McConnell's proposed impeachment trial rules Democratic senator asks for meeting with Amtrak head over alleged disability discrimination MORE (D-Ill.) thanked Wheeler for his accessibility.

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

Pruitt, who left the administration after a series of controversies, including taking first-class flights on EPA business, renting a room in Washington at the price of $50 per night from the wife of an energy lobbyist and making questionable international visits to the Vatican and Morocco.

“Mr. Wheeler is certainly not the ethical bereft embarrassment that Scott Pruitt proved to be,” said Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperAdvancing a bipartisan conservation legacy The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democrats turn to obstruction charge Trump's latest water policy exposes sharp divides MORE (D-Del.).

This is Wheeler’s second stint at the EPA. He previously worked in the agency’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics in the early 1990s where he twice earned the agency’s bronze medal. Wheeler later worked for Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeBroad, bipartisan rebuke for proposal to pull troops from Africa Lawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown Senators take oath for impeachment trial MORE's (R-Okla.) congressional office and then as a lobbyist in the energy and natural resources sector for nearly a decade at law firm Faegre Baker Daniels.

Wheeler has come under criticism for continuing to hold meetings with various fossil fuel industry leaders, including some whom his former company represented. A review of his public schedule conducted by CNN in February found that between last April and August, Wheeler attended more than 50 meetings with representatives of groups regulated by the EPA. In comparison, he met with three nonprofit environmental groups during that time.

Republicans cheered Wheeler’s confirmation.

“During the last administration, the EPA issued punishing regulations that would hurt the economy and raise costs on families,” Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said in a statement. “Under Acting Administrator Wheeler’s leadership, the EPA has taken a different approach. The agency is now putting forward proposals that both protect our environment and allow the country’s economy to flourish.”

The confirmation drew ire from Democrats and environmentalists.

“Andrew Wheeler is going to be the architect of the Republican plan to make sure we don’t do anything on this climate catastrophe,” Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeySenate Dems to Pompeo: Comments about NPR reporter 'insulting and contemptuous' Hillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Bezos phone breach raises fears over Saudi hacking | Amazon seeks to halt Microsoft's work on 'war cloud' | Lawmakers unveil surveillance reform bill Twitter tells facial-recognition app maker to stop collecting its data MORE (D-Mass) said during the Senate’s floor debate on Thursday. Markey is the lead sponsor of the Senate’s "Green New Deal" resolution that aims to jumpstart green energy jobs while getting the country running on complete renewable energy.

May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, said casting a vote for Wheeler would green light the “complete dismantling” of EPA’s regulatory power to the benefit of coal and oil lobbies.

“Like his predecessor, Andrew Wheeler is deep in the pockets of oil and coal executives, evidenced by the dozens of meetings he has prioritized with industry representatives during his time as Acting EPA Administrator,” she said.

This story has been updated.