5 questions for Andrew Wheeler

Source: By Kevin Bogardus, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler will be on Capitol Hill this morning as senators consider whether to drop “acting” from his title.

He’ll appear before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for his confirmation hearing. President Trump formally nominated him earlier this month.

Wheeler has held the top job at EPA since July, when Scott Pruitt left the agency, overwhelmed by allegations that he had misused his office. He joined EPA in April after he was confirmed by the Senate as deputy administrator.

Wheeler has a long history as an aide to Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a former EPW chairman who still sits on the panel.

After leaving Capitol Hill in 2009, he joined Faegre Baker Daniels LLP and worked as a lobbyist for several energy interests, including coal giant Murray Energy Corp.

Wheeler has also been a career EPA employee working in its toxics office early on in his professional life.

Senate Democrats will likely oppose Wheeler’s nomination and wanted to delay today’s hearing, given it’s occurring during a partial government shutdown that has closed EPA. Republicans, however, have enough votes on their own to confirm him as EPA chief.

Inhofe said yesterday he doesn’t expect any opposition to Wheeler from Senate Republicans who have previously criticized the Trump EPA over its implementation of the renewable fuel standard.

“No, he’s not going to have any trouble with Republicans,” Inhofe told E&E News.

Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said Wheeler will face “lots of questions” from parties during two rounds of questioning this morning, but “I expect he’ll be confirmed.”

Barrasso listed off Wheeler’s qualifications for the job, including his tenure as acting administrator, his work as EPW staff director under Inhofe and a previous stint at EPA.

“I expect that he’s going to do very well,” he said.

Here are five areas that Wheeler’s critics and allies alike may explore at the hearing:

What’s happening with the shutdown?

Wheeler’s confirmation hearing comes during a strange time at EPA, which is closed as part of the shutdown.

About 13,000 EPA employees are on furlough, with many of the agency’s functions — community outreach, enforcement, research and regulatory work — grinding to a halt. A slice of EPA’s workforce, about 900 staff members, remain on the job with some of those “excepted” helping to prepare Wheeler for today’s hearing.

Democrats have said the hearing shouldn’t be held while EPA is shut down, but Republicans have pressed ahead. The acting administrator can expect to be asked about what the agency is doing and not doing during the funding lapse.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), ranking member on the EPW panel, said, “I don’t see a real rush for judgment” on Wheeler’s nomination.

“I think given the fact that there’s a limited number of folks at EPA who could actually be out doing their day jobs out in the field and working on environmental issues, to be pulling people back in to get ready for a hearing, which is really being rushed, just makes no sense,” Carper said.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a committee member, said he expects the shutdown to come up during the hearing.

“You have the EPA not doing the critical inspections across the country at the same time as you have the administration proceeding to approve new drilling permits. Why is that an essential function?” Merkley said. “I would think keeping the environment clean, the air and water better would be much more essential than making it worse.”

Why the rule rollbacks?

Wheeler has kept up Pruitt’s deregulatory agenda.

The acting EPA chief has proposed rolling back Obama-era vehicle fuel efficiency standards. The agency under Wheeler is also trying to redo the justification for its mercury emission limits for power plants, which has been stalled by the shutdown.

EPA has also proposed a rewrite of its contentious Waters of the U.S., or WOTUS, rule, as well as its regulation governing carbon emissions from power plants. Delayed agency actions on chemicals like updated standards for lead in tap water, a study on formaldehyde as well as a ban on methylene chloride, a deadly paint stripper, could also come up at the hearing.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said Wheeler has proposed rolling back public health protections at the agency, which will be discussed by senators.

“There are so many that we’re going to try to figure out which ones,” the EPW member said, comparing it to “whack-a-mole.”

Are you sticking with ethanol?

Biofuels are a tricky subject for any EPA administrator, and they often tripped up Pruitt as well before he left the agency.

Several farm-state senators, including Republicans, sit on the EPW Committee. Their worries over how the Trump administration was handling the RFS, which is overseen by EPA, stalled the confirmation of Bill Wehrum, the agency’s air chief.

In addition, they are concerned that the shutdown could prevent EPA from issuing a rule to allow the year-round sale of E15, a fuel with a higher blend of ethanol.

Radio Iowa reported that Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), another EPW member, met with Wheeler last week to press him on getting the regulation out in time.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), another committee member, said she plans to ask Wheeler about ethanol.

“I hope that he will recommit to ethanol. And if he does, he will get bipartisan support from senators or from the farm states, which are mostly Republican,” Duckworth said.

What’s the status of ‘secret science’?

Wheeler also might be asked about the Trump EPA’s moves on science.

Under Pruitt, the agency proposed a rule limiting what research could be used for their regulations, specifically using only data that were available to the public. At issue: Several EPA rules depend on public health studies that use data kept confidential for privacy reasons.

But there have been signals the agency may be softening its stance, including a reported deal to change up the proposal in exchange for confirmation of another EPA nominee (E&E Daily, Jan. 14).

Wheeler may also be asked about EPA’s moves to bar science advisers who received agency grants as well as plans to consolidate its science adviser’s office with other offices.

What will you do about climate change?

Wheeler’s confirmation hearing will also be the first time he is before lawmakers since a landmark climate change study was released by the Trump administration in November.

The National Climate Assessment found the rise of carbon emissions could be terrible for the United States. The report says there will be more wildfires and flooding that could lead to an economic downturn unless emissions are reduced.

Wheeler has already commented on the report last year, saying he had questions about the assessment (Greenwire, Nov. 28, 2018).

Democratic senators confronted Pruitt about his stance on climate change and could do the same with Wheeler at today’s hearing.

Reporters Geof Koss and Nick Sobczyk contributed.