Energy & Environment

Virginia Democrats prepare for rare confirmation fight over Wheeler

Bonnie Cash

Former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Andrew Wheeler, Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s (R) nominee for state secretary of natural resources, may be in for a confirmation fight from the state Senate’s Democratic majority.

Although Republicans regained control of the state House of Delegates in November’s elections, Democrats retain a two-vote majority in the state Senate. Confirmation fights are uncommon in the legislature, but Wheeler’s record at the EPA has made him a lightning rod among environmental advocates. 

At the EPA, Wheeler, a onetime coal lobbyist, loosened a number of environmental regulations, particularly those pertaining to greenhouse gas emissions, and sought to advance rules that placed limitations on the use of scientific studies that did not make all of their data public.

Despite receiving the endorsement of former President Trump, Youngkin largely kept him at arm’s length during the Virginia gubernatorial campaign even as his opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), sought to associate the two. In an interview Friday, Virginia state Sen. Lynwood Lewis (D) said the nomination of Wheeler sent the wrong message on that front.

“I would think that we would all be better served, especially the governor-elect, if we would put the Trump years behind us and start moving forward,” Lewis told The Hill. “And this just sends a very troubling message in the early days of [Youngkin’s] administration.”

“The Trump administration was not necessarily environmentally sensitive or friendly. [Wheeler] was the point of the spear of those efforts. And so for that to come to Virginia is something that causes us all here a great deal of concern,” he said.

Asked if the caucus has the votes to defeat the nomination, Lewis said, “We do.”

Lewis is one of four Democrats in the Virginia state Senate who have at times broken from the caucus but have raised concerns about Wheeler, suggesting the chamber’s Democrats would likely be united in any effort to defeat his nomination, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Others aren’t so sure what will happen, with state Sen. Scott Surovell, vice-chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, telling The New York Times Thursday that he didn’t know if the votes are there to defeat the nomination.

Youngkin “has basically nominated a guy whose job is to enforce a bunch of laws that he’s spent his whole career” opposing, Surovell told The Hill in an interview.

“Virginia went from being one of the lagging states when it comes to environmental compliance to one of the leading states,” and “Wheeler has shown from his record that he seems to have zero interest” in continuing that work, he added.

Virginia lawmakers do not officially return to Richmond until next Wednesday, Surovell said, and the Democratic caucus has not yet formally met to develop a strategy on the nomination.

Virginia Cabinet nominees, unlike their federal counterparts, must pass both chambers of the legislature, and “I would not be surprised at the end of the day if there are some Republicans who vote against him,” Surovell added. 

And other caucus centrists are among those voicing opposition to Wheeler’s nomination. In an interview with The Hill on Friday, moderate state Sen. Joe Morrissey (D) said he “won’t be supporting him.”

“I really question this particular appointment. It’s an individual who rolled back environmental safeguards as head of the EPA under Trump. It is an individual who was a lobbyist for the coal industry,” Morrissey said. 

He added that in most situations he supports giving new governors “latitude” but said this nominee is different. 

“I just don’t think he’s the right person for this job,” he said. 

Similarly, the office of moderate Democrat Chap Petersen provided The Hill with a copy of the senator’s newsletter, in which he expresses “concerns” about the nominee, though the letter stops short of explicitly pledging to vote against Wheeler. 

“I’ve had a chance to meet and speak with the incoming Governor over the past two weeks … I do have major concerns about his recent selection as Secretary of Natural Resources,” said the letter from the lawmaker, who is also the chair of the state Senate’s Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee.

Virginia’s legislature has not rejected a governor’s nomination since 2006, when Republicans in the state House of Delegates rejected then-Gov. Tim Kaine’s (D) nominee for secretary of the commonwealth, Daniel LeBlanc. 

Rep. Don McEachin (D-Va.), himself a former Virginia state senator, on Friday called on all members to oppose the Wheeler’s nomination, citing his environmental record.

“At the Environmental Protection Agency, Mr. Wheeler sought to minimize the impacts of pollution in the rulemaking process, undo the Clean Power Plan to limit carbon pollution from our energy generation sector, weaken federal vehicle fuel standards, restrict the use of science in the rulemaking process and in protecting public health, and hinder the restoration of Chesapeake Bay by weakening Clean Water Act protections and proposing funding cuts to EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program of 90 percent,” McEachin wrote in the letter.

A spokesperson for Youngkin referred The Hill to Youngkin’s statements in support of Wheeler’s record that came when he announced the nomination Monday.

In a statement earlier this week, the governor-elect said that Wheeler shares “my vision in finding new ways to innovate and use our natural resources to provide Virginia with a stable, dependable, and growing power supply that will meet Virginia’s power demands without passing the costs on to the consumer.”

Updated at 4:49 p.m.

Tags Andrew Wheeler Donald Trump Environmental Protection Agency EPA Glenn Youngkin Terry McAuliffe Tim Kaine Virginia

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