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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 CollinsRepublicans advance Barrett's Supreme Court nomination after Democrats boycott committee vote Democrats to boycott committee vote on Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid 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) ManchinSusan Collins and the American legacy Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein Push to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw 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 PruittOVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA eases permitting for modifications to polluting facilities | Rocky Mountain National Park closed due to expanding Colorado wildfire | Trump order strips workplace protections from civil servants EPA eases permitting for modifications to polluting facilities Overnight Energy: Barrett punts on climate, oil industry recusals | Ex-EPA official claims retaliation in lawsuit | Dems seek to uphold ruling ousting Pendley MORE resigned on the heels of ethics controversies in July. He will be the agency’s second leader under President TrumpDonald John TrumpMore than 300 military family members endorse Biden Five takeaways from the final Trump-Biden debate Biden: 'I would transition from the oil industry' 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 DuckworthAmy Coney Barrett's extreme views put women's rights in jeopardy Trump slight against Gold Star families adds to military woes McConnell focuses on confirming judicial nominees with COVID-19 talks stalled 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 CarperOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats allege EPA plans to withhold funding from 'anarchist' cities | Montana asks court to throw out major public lands decisions after ousting BLM director | It's unknown if fee reductions given to oil producers prevented shutdowns Democrats allege EPA plans to withhold funding from 'anarchist' cities Energy innovation bill can deliver jobs and climate progress 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 InhofeHouse Democrat optimistic defense bill will block Trump's Germany withdrawal EPA gives Oklahoma authority over many tribal environmental issues GOP lawmakers gloomy, back on defense after debate fiasco 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 MarkeyOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats push expansion of offshore wind, block offshore drilling with ocean energy bill | Poll: Two-thirds of voters support Biden climate plan | Biden plan lags Green New Deal in fighting emissions from homes Biden plan lags Green New Deal in fighting emissions from homes Senate Republicans offer constitutional amendment to block Supreme Court packing 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.