By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday slammed U.S. President Donald Trump’s new pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency as a pro-business extremist, but harboured little hope of blocking his confirmation in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Trump nominated EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler to run the agency permanently last week. If confirmed, Wheeler would continue to push the Trump administration’s deregulatory and pro-fossil fuels agenda but without the constant criticism over alleged mismanagement that plagued his predecessor Scott Pruitt.
A Washington insider with years of experience as a top aide to Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, a climate change doubter, Wheeler has been running the EPA since July, when Pruitt resigned in a flurry of controversy over his travel expenses and use of resources and staff for personal matters.
“Mr. Wheeler is certainly not the ethically-bereft embarrassment that Scott Pruitt proved to be,” Senator Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in opening remarks at Wheeler’s confirmation hearing.
Carper, however, added: “Mr Wheeler’s environmental policies appear to be just as extreme as his predecessor’s.”
Wheeler’s opening remarks, which were briefly interrupted by shouting environmental protesters, focused on what he called his work to reduce the regulatory burden on business while also protecting air and water quality for Americans.
Wheeler’s record so far at the EPA has largely been a continuation of Pruitt’s moves to undo or weaken Obama-era environmental regulations – a tack that has won him praise from business groups and Republican lawmakers.
Among his accomplishments at the EPA, Wheeler last year finalised a proposal to replace Obama-era federal curbs on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants with a new rule placing much of that power in the hands of states.
He has also overseen the EPA’s gutting of the justification for Obama-era mercury emissions, and a reduction in the number of waterways under federal protection.
Democrats pressed Wheeler on his record and also his past work lobbying on behalf of energy companies, including underground coal giant Murray Energy, a vocal proponent of reduced environmental and safety regulation.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, held up photos of Wheeler attending meetings between Murray’s Chief Executive Robert Murray and Trump administration officials, and asked Wheeler for a full accounting of the number of such meetings he had arranged for the coal company.
Wheeler said he would provide a written response.
Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont also attacked Wheeler for refusing to call climate change the world’s most pressing crisis. Scientists say global warming is being driven by fossil fuels use, and is causing potentially devastating sea level rise and more extreme weather.
“I would not call it the greatest crisis,” Wheeler said. “I believe it is a huge issue that has to be addressed globally.”
Industry representatives and Republican lawmakers have largely praised Wheeler for his deregulatory stance, arguing the EPA has for years hurt economic growth by imposing overly-burdensome requirements on businesses.
“He understands how the regulatory process works and the type of effort that is required to develop effective and legally defensible regulatory reforms,” said Jeff Holmstead, a partner at industry-focused law firm Bracewell and a former EPA air administrator.
Environmental groups, including Moms Clean Air Force – an organisation that advocates for children’s environmental health – attended Wednesday’s hearing wearing red T-shirts and chanting “Shut down Wheeler, not the EPA.”
(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Paul Simao)