Democratic lawmakers during a closely watched Senate confirmation hearing Jan. 16 grilled U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Acting Chief Andrew Wheeler, nominated a week earlier to officially lead the agency, on the Trump administration's deregulatory agenda and his past work as a fossil fuel lobbyist.
But Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee argued that Wheeler's nearly 20-year track record of public service as an aide on that committee, which oversees the EPA, and as a former EPA staffer makes him an ideal candidate to serve as administrator.
Wheeler left his job at the Faegre Baker Daniels law and consulting firm, where he lobbied on behalf of the coal-mining company Murray Energy Corp., to join the EPA in April 2018 as deputy administrator. He stepped up in July 2018 to lead the agency on an interim basis following former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's departure, and President Donald Trump nominated him to officially lead the agency Jan. 9.
During his Senate confirmation proceedings, Wheeler faced a barrage of questions from Democrats related to the EPA's proposals to repeal and replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, revoke the legal basis for Obama-era mercury restrictions on coal-fired power plants, and freeze national emissions standards for cars and light-duty trucks.
Democrats also pressed Wheeler on what they called the administration's lack of a sense of urgency with respect to addressing climate change following a dire federal government report on global warming. And Wheeler's past lobbying work for Murray Energy, a frequent litigant in lawsuits challenging Obama-era regulations targeting coal plants, was raised repeatedly.
However, Republicans sought to allay those concerns by characterizing Wheeler's regulatory experience as an asset, specifically praising the EPA's proposals to redefine federally protected waters and allow states to establish their own CO2 emission reduction programs for fossil fuel-fired power plants.
ACE rule, mercury finding
Throughout the hearing, Wheeler repeatedly claimed that the Trump administration's Affordable Clean Energy, or ACE, rule — intended to replace the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan — will reduce CO2 emissions 34% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels once "fully implemented."
According to the EPA's analyses, the ACE rule could be cheaper to implement than the Clean Power Plan under certain scenarios but also could result in up to 1,400 more premature deaths, and a Jan. 15 report estimated that the proposal could increase CO2 emissions in more than a dozen states compared to adopting no policy at all.
Nevertheless, Wheeler praised the ACE rule, saying it "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." In contrast to the Clean Power Plan's systemwide approach, the ACE rule would incentivize coal-fired power plant operators to make on-site efficiency upgrades without triggering the need to install additional pollution controls.
Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the committee, also pressed Wheeler on the EPA's Dec. 27, 2018, proposal to rescind the legal justification for the Obama-era Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, rule.
That rule required coal-fired power plants to install equipment to cut mercury and other acid gas emissions, leading to a nearly 90% decrease in mercury pollution from the power sector since the standards were introduced. But the EPA under Wheeler has proposed revoking the Obama administration's underlying determination that regulating power plants for mercury emissions under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act was "appropriate and necessary."
"No court has ordered this action," Carper said, noting that the utility industry has asked the EPA to maintain the current mercury standards and is fully complying with the regulation at one-third the expected cost. Carper also expressed concern that revoking the standards could set the stage for a private company to file a legal challenge to the actual MATS rule, potentially allowing some coal plant operators to switch off their pollution controls.
But Wheeler pushed back on that notion, stating that he does not "honestly ... believe that equipment will be turned off or removed under our proposal."
Vehicle emissions standards
Wheeler during the hearing also addressed a proposal by the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to revise tough Obama-era vehicle emission standards for cars and light-duty trucks.
Fuel economy standards for those vehicles are currently set to ratchet up to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2026, but the EPA and NHTSA in August 2018 introduced a proposal to significantly ease the standards and revoke California's federal waiver to set its own tougher tailpipe regulations.
Of the various options for revising the standards outlined in the proposal, Carper during the hearing indicated that the EPA intends to finalize standards that would rise 0.5% per year and require automakers to meet a 38.1 miles per gallon fleetwide fuel efficiency standard by 2026.
Wheeler said the EPA aims to finalize the rule by March 30, but he told senators the agency is "running short on time" as the partial federal government shutdown — which includes the EPA — stretches on with no end in sight.
Climate report, lobbying past
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a proponent of bold action to combat global warming, admonished Wheeler for stating that he has not yet fully digested the findings in the federal government's report on climate change. The report was released in November 2018 and cites an outside study projecting that the effects of climate change could reduce the United States' gross domestic product by up to 10% by the end of the century. Wheeler told the committee he was briefed by his staff on its content once, but he said additional briefings scheduled for early January were "postponed" due to the partial government shutdown.
"That's unacceptable," Markey said. "You're looking to be confirmed as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency ... and you very conveniently haven't had enough time yet to review whether or not there's an extra level of urgency to this problem."
Wheeler, however, said he disagrees with what he sees as undue media focus on the worst-case scenario cited in the climate report.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., took aim at Wheeler's past lobbying work, pressing him on a March 2017 meeting he attended at which Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray passed a proposed action plan to Energy Secretary Rick Perry listing a range of deregulatory actions that would benefit the coal industry.
"I think you have your thumb, wrist, forearm and elbow on the scales on virtually every determination you can in favor of the fossil fuel industry," Whitehouse said. "And I think that's unfortunate."
Asked to further explain his lobbying work for Murray, Wheeler said his first priority for that company over the past four years was shoring up the United Mine Workers of America's pension and health care funds.
And Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., pointed to Wheeler's nearly two-decade career in government roles. "You come highly, highly qualified, so we appreciate that … your service to America," he said. The committee's chairman, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said he is expecting to schedule a business meeting to consider Wheeler's nomination in early February.