The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted in an 11-10 party-line vote Tuesday to advance President Donald Trump’s nomination of Andrew Wheeler to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), despite a track record that shows him favoring polluting industries at the expense of the environment and public health.
Wheeler’s nomination to succeed Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator will now head to the Republican-controlled Senate, where he is expected to be confirmed.
The former coal industry lobbyist joined the EPA as deputy administrator in April 2018 and took over as acting administrator in July when Pruitt’s mounting scandals forced him to resign. President Donald Trump formally nominated Wheeler to serve as the full-time EPA administrator in January.
In his 10 months at the EPA, Wheeler has demonstrated a political savvy that has allowed him to avoid major scandals similar to what emerged from the EPA on almost a weekly basis during the final six months of Pruitt’s tenure. From an ideological perspective, Wheeler’s background as an industry lobbyist and a senior political aide to Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) — a top climate denier and pro-fossil fuel senator — indicates an allegiance to making the EPA a pawn of industry, perhaps even greater than Pruitt’s commitment to rolling back important environmental rules and regulations.
Wheeler “has gone further than his predecessor in his rejection of important measures that are supported by a broad list of environmentalists and industry,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), the top Democrat on the committee, said during Tuesday’s hearing.
For example, Wheeler is taking steps to undermine the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) rule. The MATS rule, implemented during the Obama administration, has been a proven success in protecting Americans from emissions of mercury, which causes brain damage in babies, arsenic, lead, chromium, and nickel, which cause cancer, and acid gases, which cause serious lung disease.
Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY), a strong supporter of industry, urged his fellow senators at Tuesday’s hearing to approve Wheeler’s nomination.
“Just last week, 63 agricultural and forestry groups wrote in support of Mr. Wheeler’s nomination to be the administrator,” Barrasso said at the hearing.
After the committee approved Wheeler’s nomination, environmental groups urged the full Senate to reject Wheeler, given his track record of undermining environmental and public health rules.
During his time at the agency, Wheeler has “attacked America’s most fundamental public health and environmental safeguards to the detriment of American families and communities,” Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president of political affairs of the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement.
“Mr. Wheeler has made clear that his only commitment is to the polluting industries that once employed him,” Gore said.
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune referred to Wheeler as a “coal lobbyist masquerading as the EPA administrator.”
As his nomination moves to the Senate floor, Brune said in a statement that the Sierra Club wants senators to consider the clean air and water protections their constituents rely on, among them safeguards from toxic mercury and emissions from cars and trucks, “and vote no on this dangerous nomination.”
Emails and calendars released last week in response to a Sierra Club Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show Wheeler’s close relationships with the industries his agency is supposed to be regulating.
The documents revealed that Wheeler attended more than 50 meetings with companies or industry groups the EPA regulates between April and August of last year, including a “meet and greet” in June 2018 with an executive from biodiesal maker Darling Ingredients, a company for which he previously lobbied. Along with Darling Ingredients, the companies included BP, Duke Energy, Monsanto, HollyFrontier, Valero, FedEx Corp, Bayer, and American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers.
While Wheeler is expected to be confirmed by the Republican-led Senate, that has not always been a given for Trump EPA nominees. In December 2017, Michael Dourson withdrew his nomination to head the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention after key senators made it clear he could not win confirmation.
Dourson drew criticism for his long-time work as a consultant for chemical companies. A few Republicans hesitated to support Dourson, including the two Republican senators from North Carolina, who raised concerns about GenX chemicals found in drinking water across the state. The chemicals are found to be toxic and carcinogenic. Prior to Dourson withdrawing his nomination, Sen. Susan Colllins (R-ME) also announced she was leaning against supporting his nomination.
While the full Senate never voted on Dourson’s nomination, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — like they did with Wheeler’s nomination — voted in a 11-10 party line vote to move Dourson’s nomination out of committee.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) voted in favor of Wheeler despite reports that the EPA does not plan on regulating two chemicals – perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) — linked to cancer. The two chemicals have caused widespread contamination in Capito’s home state of West Virginia.
“For any senator who truly cares about the health of her or his constituents, opposing Andrew Wheeler’s nomination should be an easy decision,” Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said Tuesday in a statement. “As acting EPA administrator, Wheeler has repeatedly demonstrated that he’s as unfit to be in charge of protecting the public from pollution as a career thief would be as police chief.”
At a Washington Post forum in November, Wheeler was asked to name three policies he had implemented to reduce air and water pollution. “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to give you three off the top of my head,” Wheeler responded.
During Tuesday’s hearing, the committee also voted along party lines to approve the nomination of Peter Wright, a former attorney for Dow Chemical, to be assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management.
The office oversees chemical plant safety rules and administers the federal Superfund program, responsible for cleaning up some of the country’s most contaminated industrial sites.
Wright, who worked on Dow’s Superfund cleanup program, has meanwhile agreed to recuse himself from working on any Superfund sites that DowDuPont may be responsible for contaminating for at least two years. For DowDupont sites that he personally worked on, Wright agreed to a permanent recusal.
Dow and DuPont merged in August 2017. Together, they are responsible for the cleanup of nearly 200 Superfund sites.
Last year, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) said confirming Wright to oversee the Superfund program would be “a clear violation of the public trust” because he would “face dozens of conflicts of interest.”
The same committee approved Wright’s nomination in 2018. But since the full Senate did not vote on his nomination during the previous session of Congress, the committee was required to vote again on his nomination.