- The U.S. Senate on Thursday confirmed Andrew Wheeler to be deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in a 53-45 vote.
- Wheeler was a registered as a lobbyist in Washington until August 2017, working for companies including Murray Energy. He was present at preliminary meetings with Murray and Department of Energy officials last year that led to the development of DOE's controversial proposal to save coal and nuclear plants.
- Wheeler would take over leadership of EPA if its current administrator, Scott Pruitt, resigns or is fired. Pruitt is beset by multiple scandals over his travel spending and pay raises for staffers.
The Senate held confirmation hearings for Wheeler back in November of last year, but his confirmation was delayed by the the nomination of Kathleen Hartnett-White to head the White House Council of Environmental Quality.
Democrats objected to Hartnett-White's fringe beliefs on climate change and held up Wheeler's confirmation until the White House withdrew her nomination. Then on Thursday, amid mounting calls for Scott Pruitt to resign, the Senate moved to confirm the EPA No. 2.
Whether or not Pruitt stays at the helm, Wheeler is expected to continue his campaign to loosen environmental regulations on the energy industry, particularly the coal sector.
During his confirmation hearing, Wheeler said he viewed a confidential plan designed by Murray Energy and submitted to the White House to revive the domestic coal sector.
"I saw it briefly at the beginning of the year," Wheeler said in response to a question from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), "but I don’t have a copy of it."
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 my possession. I looked at it, handed it back to [CEO Bob Murray]."
Later in the hearing, Wheeler also said he attended two meetings — one at the Department of Energy and one on Capitol Hill — that focused on shaping the contents of that plan into what would eventually become the DOE's cost recovery proposal for coal and nuclear plants.
"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 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 confirmation comes the same day as a White House memorandum directing the EPA to loosen air quality restrictions on industries Wheeler has lobbied for in the past. Pruitt said in a statement that the new interpretation of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) will "ensure that E.P.A. carries out its core mission, while reducing regulatory burdens for domestic manufacturing.”