On party-line vote, Senate confirms Wheeler as EPA head; Daines lauds appointment

Andrew Wheeler testifies at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 16, 2019. (Andrew Harnik/AP photo via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Senate voted along party lines Thursday to confirm Andrew Wheeler as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, putting an official stamp on his leadership at the agency.

Wheeler, passed the full Senate with a 52-47 vote, took the helm as the EPA’s acting chief after Scott Pruitt resigned as administrator in July amid ethics scandals.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, praised the appointment, saying Wheeler takes a commonsense approach to solving important issues.

“I look forward to continuing to partner with Administrator Wheeler to protect our environment in Montana, finalize and clean up our superfund sites in Butte, Anaconda, Libby and other areas, and make sure our state can continue to provide high paying agriculture and energy jobs,” Daines said. “Under Wheeler’s leadership at the EPA, I look forward to continuing the progress we’ve made for the health of our communities, for our local economies, and for our environment.”

While Wheeler is viewed as an improvement over scandal-ridden Pruitt, critics say he will continue the former administrator’s deregulation agenda.

Brett Hartl, the government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said Wheeler is still beholden to the fossil fuel industry.

“He has shown zero interest or regard for actually protecting human health,” Hartl said in a phone interview. “And he seems to be perfectly happy to scrap decades of environmental progress of clean air and clean water.”

Wheeler, who worked at the EPA in the early 1990s, has alarmed environmental groups with his ongoing rollbacks of Obama-era regulations, including those that govern mercury emissions from power plants and toxic coal ash disposal.

And the list of regulations Wheeler has overseen in his short tenure as the acting administrator is ever growing.

Targeting an Obama-era policy opposed by farmers, the EPA announced plans in December under Wheeler’s leadership to kill a clean-water rule that offered federal protections for wetlands and other isolated water bodies.

The agency has also moved to rollback Obama-era standards on fuel economy and emissions that would cut carbon emissions in passenger vehicles in half by 2025. The move has called into question California’s 40-year practice of setting its own mileage and emission regulations.

Wheeler’s EPA has continued efforts as well to scale back Obama-era constraints on coal-fired power plants, and with Wheeler at the helm the agency proposed a rollback of rules that regulate leaks of methane from oil and gas facilities. Wheeler said the latter would bring $75 million a year in regulatory savings.

Environmental groups have challenged many of these rollbacks with some success, usually by showing a federal court that the changes lack a rational and reasoned basis, a requirement for rulemaking under the Administrative Procedure Act.

Hartl with the Center for Biological Diversity said environmental groups have prevailed in court on many of their challenges to the agency’s deregulation attempts because its process was “so flawed” and rushed under Pruitt.

“That all was sort of bound to fail because it was such a rush job by people who didn’t really know what they were doing,” Hartl said.

With two years under their belt now, however, Hartl says the agency has likely learned from the legal setbacks and will be more deliberative in its attempts to rollback regulations.

That will make legal challenges harder, Hartl said, because courts show deference to agencies and give them discretion to regulate on a reasoned basis.

“What we’re going to see in the next two years is a much harder fight to overturn what they actually do,” he said. “The good news I think from an environmental health perspective is that because they botched the first two years, by the time some of these things are done, we’re already getting really close to the end of the Trump administration.”

A new administration, he noted, can reverse course and try to undo some of the deregulation.

Wheeler, confirmed as the EPA’s deputy administrator in April, worked as a lobbyist for the coal giant Murray Energy prior to his confirmation, and once served as chief of staff to outspoken climate-change denier Senator James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma.

Democratic senators grilled Wheeler at his confirmation hearing back in January over his apparent soft spot for the fossil fuel industry.

Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont pressed him at the time on his views about climate change.

While Wheeler rejected President Donald Trump’s view that climate change is a hoax, he said it’s not the “greatest crisis” we face.

“I would call it a huge issue that has to be addressed globally,” Wheeler had said.

– The Missoula Current contributed to this story.