Trump EPA nominee advances after hosting fundraisers for 2 Senate committee members

President Trump named Andrew Wheeler as acting EPA administrator on July 5, 2018 after accepting Scott Pruitt's resignation from the position. CREDIT: screenshot/Senate EPW committee

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved the nomination of former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to serve as deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a 11-10 party-line vote. 

An outspoken advocate for the coal industry, Wheeler has long questioned the mainstream consensus on climate change. In 2006, while working for the Senate environment committee, Wheeler suggested that the Earth might actually be going through a “cooling phase.”

With Senate committee approval, Wheeler is likely to be confirmed by the full Senate, where Republicans hold a narrow majority. Wheeler also may receive support from some Democrats, as Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) are likely to vote for him, the HuffPost’s Alexander Kaufman reported Monday.

The Senate committee approved Wheeler’s nomination on the same day new revelations emerged that Wheeler hosted campaign fundraisers last May for two members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works — Sens. John Barrasso (R-WY) and James Inhofe (R-OK) — who voted to approve his nomination on Wednesday. Wheeler was first rumored to be chosen for the EPA last March.

Wheeler “cozied up with the senators who would decide upon his appointment in the most direct way possible: giving them money,” The Intercept reported Wednesday morning.

The Sierra Club called for an investigation into the report that Wheeler hosted fundraisers for Barrasso, the current chairman of the committee, and Inhofe, the committee’s immediate past chairman, after he was already the presumptive nominee to serve in the No. 2 position at the EPA.

Wheeler has managed the energy and natural resources practice at the law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels. His lobbying for energy clients has included the coal company Murray Energy, the largest privately-owned coal firm in the United States, as well as Xcel Energy, a major energy utility company.

Before he joined the law firm in 2009, Wheeler spent 14 years as a staffer for Inhofe, including as chief counsel for the senator on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee. Wheeler also gave $1,000 to Trump Victory, a joint campaign committee that worked to elect Trump and other Republicans in 2016, according to The Intercept.

Wheeler won approval from the Senate panel late last year, also in a party-line vote. But his nomination never came to the full chamber for a final confirmation vote. His nomination was returned to the committee as a matter of procedure when the new legislative session began last month.

As deputy administrator, Wheeler would oversee offices and programs charged with regulating the coal industry. Such work would ostensibly require Wheeler to obtain a waiver from the Trump administration’s ethics pledge, which bars executive branch appointees from participating “in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to my former employer or former clients, including regulations and contracts” for a period of two years.

The pledge also requires any lobbyist that was registered within two years before the date of their appointment to recuse themselves, for a period of two years, from participating in any matter on which the appointee lobbied.

At his confirmation hearing in November, Wheeler admitted he viewed a plan developed by Murray Energy to roll back environmental regulations at the agency. Serving as a lobbyist for Murray Energy, Wheeler also attended the infamous March 2017 meeting between Energy Secretary Rick Perry and coal executive Robert Murray at the Department of Energy’s headquarters. At the meeting, Murray asked Perry for policy changes that would directly benefit his coal company.

Andrew Wheeler, seated on the far right, attended a March 2017 meeting between Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray about promoting policies to benefit the finances of the coal industry. Wheeler was serving as a lobbyist for Murray Energy at the time. CREDIT: SIMON EDELMAN

Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), the top Democrat on the committee, expressed concerns with Wheeler’s association with Murray Energy. Carper referred to the wish list that Robert Murray presented to Trump and other administration officials — calling it the “Murray Action Plan” — that included calls to repeal the Clean Power and the Clean Water Rule.

“I believe that members of this committee and members of the public deserve more clarity about whether the Trump administration will be guided by science and the law, or by Bob Murray’s demands. That lack of clarity is a large part of why I cannot yet support quickly moving forward with Mr. Wheeler’s nomination,” Carper said.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) was more forceful in his repudiation of Trump’s nomination of yet another industry lobbyist to a high-ranking position in a federal agency where he will hold significant power to relax regulations on his former clients. The Trump administration is a “revolving door of lobbyists” that has created “the swamp” that the president pledged to drain upon entering the White House, Merkley said.

Along with calling for an investigation into Wheeler’s fundraising efforts, the Sierra Club said it strongly opposes Wheeler’s nomination to the No. 2 position at the EPA based on his background as a fossil fuel lobbyist. “It’s obvious a coal lobbyist shouldn’t run the agency that safeguards against air and water pollution from coal, but it’s even more obvious that he shouldn’t host fundraisers for the very people who will vote on him after he was the presumptive nominee,” Melinda Pierce, the Sierra Club’s legislative director, said Wednesday in a statement, referring to the revelations in The Intercept report.

Last week, at a hearing before the same Senate panel, Pruitt said he is still considering whether to challenge the EPA’s 2009 endangerment finding, which relied on scientific evidence to determine that greenhouse gas emissions pose a threat to public health, and therefore could be subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act. Wheeler also has suggested that the endangerment finding should be reconsidered.

“In an EPA already crowded with industry influence, coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler would speed Scott Pruitt’s sellout of our future to their corporate polluter backers,” Sara Chieffo, vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), said Wednesday. “The Trump administration has compromised the EPA’s public health mission from the beginning, but allowing Murray Energy to literally run the show is exactly why Pruitt’s ‘back to basics’ rhetoric actually means ‘profits before people.’ LCV will continue to fight Wheeler’s confirmation.”