Senators Grill Trump's Nominee to Head the Environmental Protection Agency

As acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler has worked to ease environmental regulation.
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Andrew Wheeler answers senators' questions during his confirmation hearing to be the next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on January 16th, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

Andrew Wheeler answers senators' questions during his confirmation hearing to be the next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on January 16th, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

Senators interviewed President Donald Trump's nominee to be America's top environmental regulator on Wednesday. As is often the case, their attitudes appeared to be divided along party lines, with Republicans seemingly satisfied with the nominee, Andrew Wheeler, and Democrats critical of Wheeler's efforts to roll back regulations at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Wheeler has been acting administrator of the EPA since July of 2018, when the previous administrator, Scott Pruitt, resigned amid attention-grabbing reports of potential ethics violations, including that Pruitt flew first class unnecessarily and that, once, he had a staffer try to buy a used Trump hotel mattress for him. In the past six months, Wheeler has acted more professionally than Pruitt. During the Wednesday hearing, senators from both parties thanked Wheeler for actually answering their requests. But his deregulatory goals seem largely the same as during Pruitt's tenure. For example, Wheeler led the EPA when it decided it shouldn't regulate certain hazardous air pollutants—such as mercury, a neurotoxin—that coal and oil-burning power plants emit. The EPA under Wheeler has also proposed to make fewer streams and wetlands subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act, which farmers and rural landowners had found too restrictive.

Wheeler is also less concerned about climate change than many more liberal senators would like. When asked by Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) whether he agreed that "climate change is one of the great crises facing our planet," Wheeler replied: "I would not call it the greatest crisis on Earth. I consider it a huge issue that has to be addressed globally." When asked how big of a worry he considered climate change to be, on a scale of one to 10, Wheeler said "eight or nine." But he also suggested he couldn't answer whether he agreed with the National Climate Assessment because he had only had one briefing about it. Other briefings were scheduled for early January, he said, but haven't happened because of the government shutdown.

The National Climate Assessment is a huge, congressionally mandated report, put together by scientists from 13 federal agencies, that assesses the risks the United States faces from climate change. "This report came out in November. You're the head of the EPA," Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) said. "This is unacceptable."

Republicans, meanwhile, defended Wheeler. For example, James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) gave Wheeler the chance to respond to advocacy group reports that enforcement actions plummeted at the EPA in 2018. Wheeler said those groups' work was incorrect, and that important enforcement numbers—such as the number of criminal cases opened—are up. The EPA's official figures haven't been published yet, but a couple of watchdog agencies are investigating low EPA enforcement, as the Hill reported Tuesday.

Wheeler's hearing lasted more than two and a half hours and was mostly calm and staid, after a brief protest, at the beginning, from people posted outside the room, who chanted, "Shut down Wheeler, not the EPA!" Yet it was also surprisingly packed, for policy-heavy Senate business. Before the hearing began, the line for members of the public extended down the hall and wrapped around a corner. Many of those who had staked out early spots in line—and therefore got in the room, when many others couldn't—were members of Moms Clean Air Force, a group that advocates for more stringent air pollution regulations for children's health. They brought elementary school-aged kids with them (and Wheeler had brought a young nephew).

Afterward, I spoke with the group's national field director, Heather Toney, who was a regional EPA administrator under President Barack Obama. "Wheeler, we feel, is not the adequate choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency," she said. She was most disturbed by Wheeler's lack of urgency on climate change. "That's scary to us, as moms," said Toney, who has three children. It's difficult to imagine Trump—who has frequently expressed skepticism about human-caused climate change—nominating someone to his cabinet who is deeply concerned about global warming. Nevertheless, Toney says members of her group strive to make themselves heard, attending hearings and submitting public comments to oppose the kinds of regulatory rollbacks Wheeler and others propose.

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