Battle lines drawn for Wheeler confirmation fight

Source: By Kevin Bogardus and Hannah Northey, E&E News reporters • Posted: Monday, November 19, 2018

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler could have a tough confirmation fight on his hands.

Environmental groups came out against Wheeler’s expected nomination for the top job at EPA within minutes of President Trump announcing his plans today to pick Wheeler at a Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House.

In a statement, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said Wheeler was too tied to industry and not right to lead EPA.

“He should be swiftly rejected by any senator who cares about protecting the health of their constituents,” Brune said.

Other green groups also voiced their opposition to Wheeler.

“As acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler has pushed policies that would damage our health and environment. He doesn’t deserve a promotion,” said Ana Unruh Cohen, managing director for government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Wheeler was confirmed as deputy administrator for EPA in April by the Senate. He became acting chief in July after former Administrator Scott Pruitt stepped down while battling ethics allegations.

Wheeler soon won over the president.

“Acting administrator, who I will tell you is going to be made permanent, he’s done a fantastic job and I want to congratulate him,” Trump said earlier today about Wheeler (Greenwire, Nov. 16).

Although Wheeler has received praise from Trump, Democrats were more resistant to his being picked as EPA administrator. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Wheeler has not done as well as past EPA chiefs during Republican administrations.

“Compared to Administrator Pruitt, Mr. Wheeler is better. Compared to Administrators [William] Ruckelshaus or [Christine Todd] Whitman, he’s not doing nearly as well,” Carper said.

“If the president intends to nominate Andrew Wheeler to be the administrator of EPA, then Mr. Wheeler must come before our committee so that members can look at his record as acting administrator objectively to see if any improvements have been made at the agency since he took the helm,” Carper added.

Wheeler’s critics are expected to attack his past lobbying record before he joined EPA under the Trump administration, including his representation of coal giant Murray Energy Corp. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who also sits on the EPW Committee, said, “Andrew Wheeler is a member of the coal industry’s hall of fame, making him public enemy No. 1 for public health.”

Meanwhile, conservatives began to line up behind his nomination.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said Wheeler was “the perfect choice” to lead the agency in a tweet this afternoon. Wheeler was a longtime aide to Inhofe, including when the latter served as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Others will likely soon follow suit.

At Wheeler’s first hearing on Capitol Hill as acting EPA chief this August, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) encouraged Trump to nominate Wheeler for the top job. The chairman of the EPW panel said then that Wheeler would make an “excellent administrator” (Greenwire, Aug. 1).

Industry groups are also expected to support Wheeler’s nomination, which should move through the Republican-controlled Senate. Scott Segal, an energy lawyer and lobbyist at Bracewell LLP, said the acting EPA chief was qualified for the top job.

“Andrew Wheeler’s background shows that he has the capacity to advance an appropriate balance of energy, environmental and economic considerations in a manner consistent with open administrative process and respect for rule of law. He’s a good pick to lead the agency,” Segal said.

Mike McKenna, a Republican energy strategist and lobbyist, said he expects Senate Democrats to oppose the nomination in what amounts to “kabuki theater” on Capitol Hill but that Wheeler will likely move through the confirmation process in the Republican-controlled chamber. McKenna also said Wheeler will be instrumental in pushing through the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda.

“He’s much more likely to make the kind of regulatory and structural changes in the environmental arena than most other people,” said McKenna.

Nick Loris, an energy economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said he also expects Wheeler to face tough questions about his lobbying ties at a confirmation hearing but no surprises to surface. If Wheeler is confirmed, Loris said he expects him to continue rolling back and reforming EPA rules and to implement long-term systemic changes at the agency that make it more difficult to undo the administration’s regulatory reforms.

“I think it’s a great choice, he’s someone who certainly has been a policy nerd for a long time and has a good understanding of the issues, which wasn’t always the case with some appointees before,” said Loris. “I think having that policy depth is nice to have at the top. It can give more credibility of the agency and, culturally, it’s a good fit.”