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US EPA nominee's hearing on track despite calls for delay amid shutdown

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler's Jan. 16 confirmation hearing will occur as planned despite calls from opponents to postpone the proceedings until the partial government shutdown is over.

Wheeler, a former Republican Senate aide and coal lobbyist, was tapped on Jan. 9 by President Donald Trump to become the EPA's administrator. He has been serving as acting administrator since former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned in July 2018 amid a cloud of ethics investigations. The hearing will likely feature tough questions concerning the Trump administration's aggressive deregulatory agenda, including a raft of proposals to ease environmental regulations on coal-fired power plants and oil and gas producers.

Critics have also noted the proceedings will play out against a border wall fight between Trump and congressional Democrats that has shuttered roughly one-quarter of the federal government, including the agency Wheeler is nominated to lead. On Jan. 11, the leaders of nine environmental groups called for a delay in a letter delivered to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee that will conduct Wheeler's hearing.

"We write to you to demand a postponement of Mr. Wheeler's confirmation hearing until the president's wasteful government shutdown … is ended," groups including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice said, noting thousands of EPA employees are currently furloughed without pay.

A staffer on the Environment and Public Works Committee confirmed Jan. 15 the hearing will proceed as planned.

Opposition from environmental groups aside, Wheeler will have the support of at least one major electric utility group when he fields questions from lawmakers. "Andrew Wheeler has demonstrated his ability to head the agency and understands the importance of common-sense regulatory reforms that promote a healthy environment and vibrant rural economies," Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said in an email. "We look forward to working with him."

The Edison Electric Institute, the nation's largest investor-owned electric utility trade group, did not return a request for comment. A spokesman with the American Public Power Association said the group generally does not comment on nominations.

Lobbying past

Prior to joining the EPA as deputy administrator in April 2018, Wheeler was a principal at Faegre Baker Daniels consulting, where he co-led that firm's energy and natural resources practice. Before that, he was majority staff director, minority staff director and chief counsel for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, including under former Chair Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who is known for being skeptical of climate change science. Wheeler began his professional career in 1991 as an EPA staffer in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, where he worked under the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations.

At Faegre Baker Daniels, Wheeler represented Murray Energy Corp. one of the nation's largest coal mining companies. Murray Energy was a frequent litigant in challenges to Obama-era regulations targeting coal-fired power plants, including the Clean Power Plan and Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS. In a November 2018 interview with the Washington Post, Wheeler said Murray Energy was just one of more than 20 different energy and environment companies he represented as a lobbyist consultant. Soon after he was installed as deputy administrator, Wheeler signed a two-year recusal agreement that bars him from participating in issues involving the EPA on which he lobbied.

In one of the EPA's last acts before its funding lapsed, the agency released a proposal to revoke the legal basis for MATS while keeping the standards in place. Murray Energy has challenged the legal justification for the standards in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and the case has been placed in abeyance pending a final rule from the EPA.

Meanwhile, a federal judge in California recently ordered the EPA to release thousands of pages of emails and calendar invitations between Wheeler, other top EPA staff and industry representatives in response to a public records lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club. The documents are scheduled for release over a 10-month timeline that will start as soon as the partial government shutdown ends.

Wheeler was previously confirmed as deputy administrator by a 53-45 margin. If his nomination is voted out of committee, where Republicans hold an 11-10 majority, it will head to the full Senate for consideration. Republicans control the upper chamber 53-47.