The Senate on February 28 officially confirmed Andrew Wheeler to be administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on a 52–47 vote, mostly along party lines. The nomination of Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, was controversial, with many lawmakers and environmentalists criticizing his ties to the coal industry.
Wheeler has held the role in an acting capacity since July 5, after Scott Pruitt, the Trump administration’s first EPA head, resigned amid scrutiny for questionable ethical decisions involving his office.
Susan Collins (R-Maine), the only Republican to vote against Wheeler, in a statement Wednesday noted concerns about actions Wheeler took during his tenure as acting administrator. “I believe that Mr. Wheeler, unlike Scott Pruitt, understands the mission of the EPA and acts in accordance with ethical standards; however, the policies he has supported as Acting Administrator are not in the best interest of our environment and public health, particularly given the threat of climate change to our nation,” she said.
Collins pointed to the EPA’s rollback of power plant rules, specifically citing its December 2018 determination that it is no longer “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from power plants under the EPA’s 2012 Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), as well as the agency’s actions to replace the Clean Power Plan. “There is no doubt that the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change pose a significant threat to our state’s economy and our natural resources, from our working forests, fishing, and agricultural industries, to tourism and recreation,” she said.
Joe Manchin III—a centrist Democrat from coal-rich West Virginia—also voted against Wheeler’s confirmation. Manchin, who said he voted to confirm Wheeler as deputy EPA administrator “because I thought the president deserved to have his team in place,” said he believed he could work with Wheeler. “Today, I voted against him to be the permanent Administrator of the EPA because as Acting Administrator, he hasn’t demonstrated a desire or a will to make any meaningful progress on clean drinking water standards and has rolled back clean air standards that are directly impacting West Virginians, both concerns that I have raised with him.” Manchin noted that changes to MATS, which aren’t backed by industry, are “inappropriate and will only serve to further undermine the status of our coal based utilities.”
Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who has strongly supported MATS, still voted for Wheeler. In a meeting on January 28, Alexander told Wheeler that he would “not support any efforts that might jeopardize” MATS. “The Mercury Rule has helped to reduce the pollution that had led the Great Smoky Mountains to become the ‘Great Smoggy Mountains’,” he said in a statement Thursday. “Today, partially as a result of federal pollution controls including the Mercury Rule, you can see more than 90 miles on the clearest days, and on the haziest days, visibility has improved to more than 30 miles.”
Wheeler Faces Tumultuous Tenure as EPA Head
During his own confirmation hearing on January 16 before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Wheeler said he has worked to provide greater regulatory certainty both to industry, but also to the public, and to Congress. “The American public have a right to know the truth about the health risks they face in their daily lives and how we are responding. It is our responsibility to explain it to them clearly and consistently,” he testified.
However, Wheeler said if he were confirmed as EPA administrator, he would continue to work to advance President Trump’s regulatory reform agenda. “In 2018, EPA finalized 13 major deregulatory actions, saving Americans roughly $1.8 billion in regulatory costs. To date, under President Trump, EPA has finalized 33 major deregulatory actions saving Americans almost $2 billion,” he noted.
Among the EPA’s priorities is to finalize the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule to replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. The ACE rule, Wheeler said, would “adhere to the four corners of the Clean Air Act and allow states to set emissions standards that protect human health while ensuring access to affordable, reliable energy. When ACE is fully implemented, the rule would help reduce U.S. power sector CO2 emissions by 34 percent below 2005 levels.”
As EPA administrator, Wheeler’s actions will likely come under increased scrutiny, especially by House Democrats. On February 1, for example, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, along with Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y), chair of the Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, lambasted Wheeler for the EPA’s failure to provide documents concerning a reported decline in initiated enforcement cases.
The lawmakers also alleged the EPA has reduced enforcement staff, relies too heavily on state enforcement programs, and—notably—shows an “increased political review of potential or pending enforcement actions.” During the first nine months under Pruitt’s leadership, the EPA started about 1,900 enforcement cases—a third fewer than under Obama’s first EPA director, and a quarter under George W. Bush during the same time period, they said.
On February 25, lawmakers urged the EPA’s acting inspector general to investigate whether two officials, who were formerly with law firm Hunton & Williams, helped reverse the agency’s position in an enforcement case concerning DTE Energy’s coal-fired power plant in Monroe, Michigan.
Wheeler is also poised to run into contentious court battles spearheaded by states. In January, for example, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey filed a lawsuit to challenge the Trump administration’s 2018 Cross-State Air Pollution Rule “close out” for failing to require any further control of sources of smog pollution in upwind states. At least nine other major rules affecting power plants are mired in litigation. [For more, see “The Big Picture: Trump’s Regulatory Targets” in POWER’s September 2018 issue.]
Over the next 10 months, meanwhile, Wheeler could contend with new scrutiny. In December, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ordered the release of about 20,000 e-mails exchanged between industry groups and 25 Trump officials, including Wheeler.
Environmental Groups Allege Wheeler Is ‘More of the Same’
Environmental groups are miffed by Wheeler’s confirmation. Ten groups, including the Sierra Club and Waterkeeper Alliance, urged senators in a February 4 letter to vote against Wheeler’s nomination. The groups alleged Wheeler has “refused” to reverse Pruitt’s “extreme and damaging actions,” such as policies to “censor science and make EPA science reviews industry-friendly.”
As acting administrator, Wheeler attempted “to reverse science by placing someone who denies decades of air pollution science in charge of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. In short, Wheeler’s time in charge of the agency has been no better for public health than under Scott Pruitt,” they wrote. While the groups took issue with Wheeler’s previous roles as an industry lobbyist, they also alleged he has “openly opposed climate protections,” saying he referred to the Paris Agreement as a “sweetheart deal” for China.
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune in a statement Thursday said, “Senate Republicans have officially put a coal lobbyist in charge of protecting our children from the dirty air and toxic water created by his corporate polluting clients. With each rollback, Wheeler is stacking the deck in favor of the polluting corporations who formerly employed him, leaving our families to pay the price of more toxic pollution with their health.”
Predictably, America’s Power, a coal power trade organization, lauded Wheeler’s confirmation. President and CEO Michelle Bloodworth said, “During his time as Acting Administrator, Andrew Wheeler has been seen as a thoughtful leader who understands the need for sensible environmental policies. His long experience in public service demonstrates his integrity in serving EPA’s mission.”
—Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine).