The first appearance of Andrew Wheeler, as acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), on Capitol Hill Tuesday proved much less contentious than former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s final appearance before lawmakers in May.
In his opening comments, Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) sought to inject some levity into the hearing, titled “Examining EPA’s Agenda: Protecting the Environment and Allowing America’s Economy to Grow.” Carper expressed the hope that Wheeler would avoid many of the embarrassing scandals that marked Pruitt’s tenure as EPA chief.
“I am encouraged that there will be a number of differences between Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Pruitt and the way that they approach this important leadership role,” Carper said. “For example, I don’t expect to hear as much as a peep from Mr. Wheeler today about used mattress shopping, Chick-fil-A franchises, or fancy moisturizers.”
After extending a friendly welcome to Wheeler, Democratic committee members wanted answers to how his policy-making would be different than Pruitt’s — whose tenure was marked with a range of policy efforts to rollback environmental protections.
“What we do need to hear from Mr. Wheeler today is how he plans to differentiate himself from Mr. Pruitt across a range of environmental policies that are far more consequential,” Carper said.
One of the first major issues confronting Wheeler as acting administrator has been overseeing the EPA’s role in the Trump administration’s rollback of auto fuel efficiency and emissions standards. The Trump administration is expected to release a proposal this week to roll back Obama-era federal fuel economy standards and partially revoke California’s ability to set its own fuel mileage and emissions standards.
Wheeler said he would be interested in striking a deal on fuel economy and emissions rules with California and the auto industry.
When asked by Carper if he would avoid revoking California’s regulatory waiver if a deal could be struck, Wheeler answered, “My goal in this administration is to come up with a 50-state solution. We want to have a 50-state solution that does not necessitate preempting California.”
Carper said Wheeler has told him repeatedly that he shares Carper’s goal of striking a deal between automakers and California on fuel economy and greenhouse gas tailpipe standards.
“Unfortunately, the administration’s proposal could not be further from the ‘win-win’ outcome many of us believe is within reach,” Carper said. “Instead of providing near-term flexibility and predictability for the auto industry in exchange for more rigorous standards and clean vehicle incentives going forward, the Trump administration is proposing to freeze standards for seven straight model years.”
At the hearing, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) explained that over the lifetime of the current fuel economy standards — through 2030 — consumers will save $1 trillion on gasoline and 12 billion barrels of oil will remain in the ground.
“The oil industry is scared to death that the billions of barrels of reserves that they are currently claiming on their balance sheets to the Securities and Exchange Commission will end up as so-called stranded assets,” Markey said. “They are scared to death that $1 trillion will stay stranded in the pockets of consumers. That’s why the Trump administration is moving to roll back these standards.”
Under questioning by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Wheeler emphasized that the EPA is not in the business of picking winners and losers among energy sources. “We shouldn’t be enacting regulations that favor one energy source over another,” he said.
Prior to joining the EPA as deputy administrator in early 2018, though, Wheeler worked as a lobbyist for coal company Murray Energy. He was tasked with working with policy-makers to turn around the coal industry’s fortunes by implementing policies that would favor it over other energy sources.
At least one environmental group, the Sierra Club, was quick to point out the irony on Twitter.
— Sierra Club Live (@SierraClubLive) August 1, 2018
Wheeler told the same Senate panel last November during his confirmation hearing to be EPA deputy administrator that he met with the Department of Energy on behalf of Murray Energy about Perry’s proposal to subsidize coal and nuclear plants. He said he also participated in a Capitol Hill meeting on the proposal, which Perry sent to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for implementation.
Meanwhile, a report on Wheeler released on Wednesday, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) echoed the opinions of his detractors in the Senate.
“Because he has spent his career helping polluters weaken environmental safeguards, Andrew Wheeler will now regularly oversee EPA decisions that could benefit their bottom line,” EDF says in the report. “Wheeler’s history signals a man indebted to industry and special interests — and one whose understanding of Washington could make him an even graver threat than his predecessor, Scott Pruitt.”