Virginia Democrats Aim to Block Trump’s E.P.A. Chief From State Agency

Source: By Lisa Friedman, New York Times • Posted: Sunday, January 9, 2022

In Virginia, cabinet nominees are rarely blocked. But the Republican governor-elect’s choice of Andrew Wheeler to be natural resources secretary has alarmed Democrats.

As E.P.A. administrator under President Trump, Andrew Wheeler succeeded in repealing several pollution and climate change regulations and worked to make it harder to impose new regulations.
Pool photo by Al Drago

WASHINGTON — A rare confirmation battle is brewing around the nomination of Andrew Wheeler, who ran the Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald J. Trump, to take a similar role in an incoming Republican state administration in Virginia.

Democratic leaders said they would try to block Mr. Wheeler from taking charge of conservation programs, environmental cleanups and climate change initiatives like the ones he opposed as E.P.A. administrator.

Resistance to Mr. Wheeler began building just moments after his nomination to be natural resources secretary was announced on Wednesday by Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, a Republican who will be sworn in on Jan. 15.

Republicans won control of the House of Delegates in November, but Democrats retain a 21-to-19 majority in the State Senate. They would be able to block confirmation of Mr. Wheeler if every Senate Democrat were to vote against him.

It would be one of just a handful of times in recent history that a governor’s pick had been upended in a state where polite politics have long been the norm.

Democratic lawmakers on Thursday said Mr. Wheeler’s former employment as a coal lobbyist and the role he played at the E.P.A. reversing federal protections against air and water pollution were reasons to fight his appointment.

“Our governors tend not to propose people for these positions that are all that polarizing,” said Scott A. Surovell, a Democratic state senator from Northern Virginia. “I can’t think of a nominee in the last 20 years that has had the level of a controversial history as this guy does.”

Mr. Surovell, who is vice chairman of the Senate Democratic caucus, said he was unsure if there were enough votes to defeat Mr. Wheeler’s nomination. But he said he had been fielding text messages all day from colleagues who expressed astonishment at Mr. Youngkin’s choice.

“I think there’s a real chance that he could be rejected if Governor-elect Youngkin continues to insist on his nomination,” Mr. Surovell said.

Mr. Wheeler, who lives in Virginia, did not respond to an email seeking comment. A spokesman for Mr. Youngkin also declined to comment.

In a statement announcing his nomination of Mr. Wheeler as well as Michael Rolband to be state director of environmental quality, Mr. Youngkin said “Virginia needs a diverse energy portfolio in place to fuel our economic growth, continued preservation of our natural resources, and a comprehensive plan to tackle rising sea levels. Andrew and Michael share my vision in finding new ways to innovate and use our natural resources to provide Virginia with a stable, dependable, and growing power supply that will meet Virginia’s power demands without passing the costs on to the consumer.”

As E.P.A. administrator in the Trump administration, Mr. Wheeler acknowledged the science of climate change but also said he believed it was not “the greatest crisis” facing the planet. He repealed several regulations that had been implemented by President Barack Obama and were designed to cut emissions from automobiles, power plants and oil and gas wells. Mr. Biden has revived many of those rules and is in the process of reinstating others.

Mr. Wheeler also worked to make it harder for the E.P.A. to impose new regulations, most notably by trying to limit the kind of scientific studies the agency could consider when writing new pollution restrictions. A federal judge threw out that limit in February.

Before joining the E.P.A., Mr. Wheeler worked for Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who has called climate change a “hoax.” He later worked as an energy lobbyist. His biggest client was Robert Murray, the chief executive of Murray Energy, who fought Mr. Obama’s climate and clean air regulations. Mr. Murray, who was a major donor to Mr. Trump, died in October. Representing Mr. Murray’s coal interests brought Mr. Wheeler’s lobbying firm more than $2.7 million over eight years.

In September Mr. Wheeler testified before the board of supervisors in Fairfax County, Va., against a proposed 5-cent tax on disposable plastic bags, calling the plan “misguided.”

“The appointment of someone like Wheeler is dangerous and reckless,” said Connor Kish, the legislative and political director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental group. Mr. Kish said the chapter was launching a direct lobbying effort to squelch Mr. Wheeler’s confirmation, the first time in his memory the group has done so for a state-level nominee.