Dems Challange Trump EPA Nominee 01/17 06:09
WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the
Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday called climate change "a huge
issue" but not the "greatest crisis" and drew fire from Democrats at his
confirmation hearing over the regulatory rollbacks he's made in six months as
the agency's acting administrator.
Republicans on the GOP-majority Senate Environment and Public Works
Committee mostly had praise for Andrew Wheeler, who has served as the agency's
acting head since Scott Pruitt's resignation in July amid ethics scandals. The
committee chairman, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., called Wheeler "very
well-qualified" to take the job.
But Democrats pressed Wheeler about his work as a lobbyist helping an
influential coal magnate meet with Trump administration officials before his
nomination to the EPA and his moves on deregulation and on what they said was
his inattention to the growing dangers of climate change.
"You seem to be consistently doing things that undermine the health and
safety of this nation," Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., told Wheeler.
Markey asked him why he was pulling back on regulations that proponents say
protect human health and the environment.
"I believe we are moving forward" on protections, Wheeler responded.
Wheeler cited changes he had initiated to roll back future mileage standards
for cars and autos and to ease Obama-era clampdowns on dirtier-burning
coal-fired power plants.
He said EPA staff, whom he did not identify, had concluded that those
rollbacks would ultimately lead to health gains. Environmental groups and
formal assessments from the EPA and other agencies have contested that, saying
the changes would increase pollution and increase harm to people and the
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said the rollbacks in car mileage standards and
toxic mercury emissions under Wheeler were examples of unsafe deregulation and
went beyond what industries themselves wanted.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., noted Wheeler had failed to mention climate
change in his initial remarks to lawmakers.
"Do you agree that climate change is a global crisis?" Sanders asked,
shouting at times.
"I would not call it the greatest crisis," Wheeler said. "I would call it a
huge issue that has to be addressed globally."
Wheeler told lawmakers that he had yet to read a massive government climate
change report released late last year that emphasized man-made climate change
was already underway.
Wheeler said he had received one staff briefing so far on the climate change
report. The work of the EPA and other government agencies, the report stresses
the massive economic toll expected from increasingly severe wildfires,
hurricanes and other extreme weather under climate change.
Wheeler said the news media had seized upon "worst-case scenarios" of the
"You are a former coal industry lobbyist that is sitting here," Markey
responded. "That's the worst-case scenario, what you are proposing here" for
easing Obama-era rules meant to clamp down on climate-changing fossil fuel
Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa and other Republican lawmakers, by contrast, praised
Wheeler for a move to remove federal protections for millions of miles of
wetlands and waterways and other proposals. Republican lawmakers said the
protections had burdened farmers and others.
The grandson of a coal miner, Wheeler worked for the EPA in the 1990s and
later as a longtime Republican Senate staffer.
Democrats pressed Wheeler about his lobbying before joining the EPA, saying
his work for coal companies should disqualify him from leading an agency that
Wheeler's lobbying clients included coal magnate Bob Murray, who pushed hard
on the Trump administration after the 2016 elections to grant a series of
breaks for the sagging domestic coal industry.
Wheeler accompanied Murray to a March 2017 meeting to pitch Murray's list of
desired rule rollbacks and other breaks for coal to Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Wheeler told senators that his main work for Murray had been on health
benefits and pensions.
"I did not work on the plan. I do not have a copy of it. I saw it briefly,"
Wheeler said, referring to Murray's wish list.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., displayed a blown-up version of a photo
taken of the meeting with Perry, showing Wheeler at Murray's side.
A second photo showed Murray's rollback plan in Wheeler's hands.
Murray had sought some of the coal breaks that the EPA under Wheeler has
since acted on. That included Wheeler signing a rule easing federal regulation
of toxic coal ash, redoing an Obama rule that pushed electricity providers to
move away from dirtier-burning coal plants and targeting an Obama rule limiting
emissions of toxic mercury from coal plants.
A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington,
filed an ethics complaint Tuesday with the EPA's Office of the Inspector
General alleging that Wheeler's oversight of those and other rollback proposals
at EPA may have violated his government ethics pledge to abstain from
regulatory decisions affecting his former lobbying client for at least two
EPA spokesman John Konkus called the accusation "baseless" and "wrong" and
said Wheeler works with EPA ethics officials and follows their guidance.