Senate confirms Wheeler as EPA head, reinforcing regulation rollback
- The U.S. Senate on Thursday voted 52-47 to approve EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler as the permanent head of the agency, despite defections from two senators who voted for his confirmation as deputy last year.
- Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, voted against Wheeler over concerns about his views on climate change, making her the only Republican to oppose his confirmation. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., also voted against Wheeler, citing the EPA's move to gut the justification behind mercury emission standards for power plants.
- Wheeler has directed multiple efforts to roll back environmental regulations on the utility and transportation sectors, including rules on carbon emissions from coal plants and tailpipe pollution from automobiles. He has headed the agency on a temporary basis since former Administrator Scott Pruitt stepped down last July.
Wheeler's confirmation means the former coal lobbyist will be able to implement the EPA's multiple deregulatory actions without interruption.
While his predecessor was dogged by multiple ethics scandals, Wheeler has stayed away from public controversy as he directs efforts to roll back environmental regulations put in place by the Obama EPA.
Those include vehicle efficiency rules that were set to accelerate under the previous administration. In August, Wheeler announced plans to freeze those standards and revoke California's authority to set stronger rules for car engines and electric vehicles.
Also in August, Wheeler announced plans to roll back the Clean Power Plan, a sweeping rule that would have required coal plant owners to shift to lower-emitting forms of power generation. EPA is now working on finalizing a replacement plan that would require only modest efficiency upgrades at coal plants.
Wheeler has also pushed other coal sector priorities, including a Dec. 2018 decision to reconsider the rationale for mercury emission rules and the rollback of the nation's first federal rules for the disposal of coal ash, a hazardous byproduct of power generation. Wheeler's first move as acting administrator was to announce a new, less stringent ash rule for plant owners.
Environmentalists and public health groups say Wheeler's recent work for industry represents a conflict of interest with the EPA's regulatory mission. Until August 2017, Wheeler was registered as a lobbyist in Washington where he represented companies regulated by the EPA.
One of those clients was Murray Energy, the largest privately owned coal mining company in the U.S. In March 2017, Wheeler was present at a meeting between CEO Bob Murray and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry during which Murray gave the secretary an "Action Plan" to save the domestic coal sector.
The plan and others submitted to the White House included a number of actions EPA has since undertaken, including rollbacks of the Clean Power Plan and coal ash rule, as well as an ill-fated power plant bailout proposal that the White House submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last year.
Wheeler defended his record as a lobbyist when he took the helm at EPA in July, touting his work on health benefits for miners, as well as his previous experience as a career staffer at EPA. But some of his deregulatory actions to support the coal sector cost him the votes of Collins and Manchin.
“EPA has proposed to roll back environmental protections, including determining it is no longer 'appropriate and necessary' to regulate mercury emissions from power plants, halting efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks, and replacing the Clean Power Plan,” Collins wrote in a statement. “Those efforts are of great importance to the state of Maine.”
Manchin also cited the mercury rule rollback as justification for his opposition.
"I continue to believe the proposed changes to the mercury rule, which the industry doesn’t even support, are inappropriate and will only serve to further undermine the status of our coal based utilities," he wrote.
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