- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted 11-10 along party lines on Tuesday to confirm Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as permanent head of the agency.
- The vote highlighted a growing concern among Democrats about climate change and proposed changes to EPA regulations, including those for mercury emissions and vehicle fuel standards.
- Ranking Member Tom Carper, Del., asked to delay Wheeler's nomination due to a number of issues that concern Senate Democrats, including proposals to weaken vehicle fuel standards and the rethink rationale for the agency's mercury emissions rules. Wheeler's nomination is valid for 183 more days, he said.
Wheeler's confirmation hearing in January, heavily attended by environmental protestors, revealed new information about how the EPA planned to weaken vehicle fuel standards finalized by the Obama administration.
In August, Wheeler announced plans to freeze vehicle emissions standards and revoke California's ability to set its own, more stringent rules. During his hearing, Wheeler said the agency would increase fuel efficiency standards for vehicles by 0.5%, less than the increase planned by his EPA predecessors.
Appointed acting administrator after a stint as the agency's second-in-command last year, Wheeler has directed efforts to roll back utility and transportation sector pollution regulations. His confirmation as the agency's permanent administrator would likely mean the continuation of deregulatory actions. Previously, he lobbied for coal mining companies such as Murray Energy, touting their deregulatory agenda.
During his confirmation hearing, Wheeler said under the agency's "preferred option" for the mercury emissions standards, the mercury control technology installed at power plants would not be removed.
The EPA's chief air regulator, Bill Wehrum, repeated that message at the Wilson Center last month, saying the EPA intends to narrow its interpretation of whether a regulation is necessary after the Supreme Court invalidated the EPA's original finding in 2015.
In July, Wheeler issued a weaker rule for coal ash management, allowing some plant operators to keep their ponds of coal waste open past the April 2019 deadline. His agency is also working to replace Obama-era power plant regulations with less stringent rules — a proposal some experts say could end up raising emissions.
The Senate committee approved Wheeler during their business meeting, along with Peter Wright as an assistant administrator of the EPA's Office of Land and Emergency Management. The committee also passed en banc its budget resolution, rules and four bills that received bipartisan support last Congress, including one on protecting the use of remote fossil-fuel powered generators in Alaska for reliability purposes despite emissions regulations.