- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced the nominations of Andrew Wheeler to be deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and Kathleen Hartnett White to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality in two party-line votes on Wednesday.
- Every Democrat on the 21-member committee voted against the nominations, objecting to Hartnett White's heterodox environmental beliefs and Wheeler's past as a lobbyist for coal miner Murray Energy. The nominations now head to the full Senate for approval.
- In his confirmation hearing, Wheeler said he viewed a confidential Murray Energy plan to save coal jobs that was later submitted to the White House, and that he was present for two meetings that led to the crafting of the Department of Energy's cost recovery proposal for coal and nuclear plants as a lobbyist for Murray.
The Trump White House has put a number of controversial nominees in front of Senate committees this year, but Hartnett White could represent its most blatant rejection of mainstream environmental science yet.
The former head of the Texas Council on Environmental Quality is known for her incendiary comments on climate change, comparing it to a "kind of paganism" for "secular elites" in 2016. While a number of Trump appointees question established climate science, Hartnett White went a step further in her confirmation hearing, reviving an old fossil fuel industry line that carbon dioxide is actually good for the planet.
"As an atmospheric gas, [CO2] is a plant nutrient," Hartnett White said. "It’s likely CO2 emissions from human activity have some influence on the climate, but CO2 in the atmosphere has none of the characteristics of a pollutant that contaminates and fouls and has a direct impact on human life."
Democrats objected to that and other statements from Hartnett White, including an exchange with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) in which Hartnett White doubted the connection between climate change and rising sea levels.
“A nominee who can’t follow the thread from carbon pollution, to ocean warming, to sea level rise, who imagines science that is not there, and ignores science that is there, is a preposterous nominee,” Whitehouse said before the vote.
But while Hartnett White's statements attract headlines, Wheeler could end up being the more consequential nominee. If confirmed by the full Senate, he would take over the powerful No. 2 slot at EPA. His nomination was supported by fossil fuel interests, who expect him to help Administrator Scott Pruitt reduce regulations on the energy sector.
During his confirmation hearing, Wheeler admitted he had seen a confidential, three-page memo sent to the White House by Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray.
"I saw it briefly at the beginning of the year," Wheeler said in response to a question from Whitehouse, "but I don’t have a copy of it."
Wheeler, a former staffer for Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), was a registered lobbyist until August, listing Murray Energy as a client. Pressed by Whitehouse, Wheeler stressed that he "did not work on" the memo and said he could not remember even basic details about it.
"I don’t even know how many pages it was," he said. "I did not have it in my possession. I looked at it, handed it back to [CEO Bob Murray]."
Later in the hearing, however, Wheeler revealed that he was also present for meetings that aimed to drum up support for baseload generation in the months before the release of a controversial coal and nuclear subsidy plan from the Department of Energy.
"Certainly Murray Energy has been supportive of that effort and I did attend a meeting with Murray Energy at the Department of Energy where this was discussed months ago," Wheeler said, "but I de-registered [as a lobbyist] in August and have not been involved over the last few months on this issue."
Pressed further by Whitehouse, Wheeler recalled that he "attended one [Capitol] Hill meeting on that as well." But he distanced himself from the contents of the DOE proposal, saying he "did not work on putting that together."
EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman later confirmed that Wheeler attended two meetings, and that the Hill meeting was with staffers from the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
"Mr. Wheeler participated in two preliminary discussions about the need for baseload energy well before this was a key issue," Bowman said. "He has not participated in any further discussion since August."
Wheeler's involvement with the DOE proposal and Hartnett White's comments did not appear to trouble Republicans on the committee, all of whom voted to confirm both nominees. They now head to the full Senate for final approval.