Andrew Wheeler, Who Continued Environmental Rollbacks, Is Confirmed to Lead E.P.A.
WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday confirmed Andrew R. Wheeler to be the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, giving oversight of the nation’s air and water to a former coal lobbyist and seasoned Washington insider.
The confirmation formalized a role Mr. Wheeler has held in an acting capacity since the summer when President Trump’s first administrator, Scott Pruitt, resigned amid multiple ethics inquiries.
The vote, 52-47, went mostly along party lines and underscored partisan divisions over the Trump administration’s continued commitment to repealing environmental regulations under Mr. Wheeler.
Senator Susan Collins of Maine was the only Republican to vote against Mr. Wheeler.
“The policies he has supported as acting administrator are not in the best interest of our environment and public health, particularly given the threat of climate change to our nation,” Senator Collins said.
Nearly eight months after taking over the chief role from Mr. Pruitt, who was known for his combative style, analysts said Mr. Wheeler had brought a change in demeanor to the agency but virtually no difference in policy direction from his predecessor.
Jonathan H. Adler, a professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, characterized Mr. Wheeler’s soft-spoken style and willingness to listen to criticism as genuine. But, he said, “It’s not going to mean that his priorities suddenly go away or that he’s suddenly going to abandon the regulatory philosophy that the administration from the very top has embraced.”
“This is an administration that would like to reduce the overall regulatory footprint of the federal government,” Mr. Adler said.
Republicans said they have been delighted to discover Mr. Wheeler is as enthusiastic about repealing environmental regulations and promoting coal as Mr. Pruitt was, and are looking to him to cement Mr. Trump’s legacy as a warrior against what they see as regulatory overreach.
“He’s been a very solid follow on to Scott Pruitt.” said Michael McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist. “He’s followed through in a fairly aggressive fashion on everything Scott started.”
Mr. Wheeler has moved to dramatically weaken two of former President Obama’s signature climate change initiatives, cutting emissions from power plants and from automobiles, while also proposing to make new coal-fired power plants easier to approve.
He also has also sought to unwind the legal justification for curbing toxic mercury emissions from power plants, limit federal protection of small waterways, and dismissed a panel of independent scientific advisers.
Some of the most consequential climate rollbacks are expected to be finalized in the coming months. That will most likely touch off a barrage of lawsuits from Democratic-governed states and environmental activists who have vowed to fight the rollbacks.
Mary D. Nichols, who leads California’s air quality agency, said she had experienced firsthand the dissonance between Mr. Wheeler’s demeanor and his actions.
By spring of 2018, relations between the state and the Trump administration had hit a low point amid a feud over California’s right to set automobile emissions standards stricter than the ones set by the federal government. Mr. Pruitt had virtually no engagement with Ms. Nichols. At one point, she asked him on Twitter to “call me maybe?”
So, about a week after Mr. Pruitt’s resignation, when Mr. Wheeler called her office at the California Air Resources Board, Ms. Nichols said she was encouraged.
“He wanted to make sure I knew he was going to be more open and accessible than his predecessor was,” Ms. Nichols said. Nevertheless, negotiations continued to stagnate.
“Everyone was polite, that was a welcomed change,” she said. “But there was no difference in policy.”
The White House announced last week that the E.P.A. and the Department of Transportation had ended talks with California over its clean-air waiver. The move signaled that the administration is closer to finalizing its rule to roll back tailpipe emissions standards that were put in place under President Barack Obama and will quite likely try to revoke California’s ability to set its own pollution rules.
“I have to say that I don’t find him materially different than Scott Pruitt in his policies or the mission that he has taken on,” Ms. Nichols said. “The only difference really is that he is more polished and more professional to deal with.”
On climate change, Mr. Wheeler also has taken a calibrated tone that contrasts with his policies.
Unlike Mr. Pruitt who went on television to say carbon dioxide is not a primary contributor to global warming and rising global temperatures might be good for humanity, Mr. Wheeler told a Senate confirmation panel in January that “climate change is real.” He rated his level of concern about climate change, on a scale of 1 to 10, at an eight or nine.
But, two weeks later, he appointed John Christy, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, who has testified that the earth will benefit from more planet-warming emissions, to an influential E.P.A. scientific advisory board.
And asked whether he intended to work with Congress to finalize a ban on chlorpyrifos — an insecticide associated with developmental delays and cognitive impairments in children that Mr. Pruitt, acting against the advice of the E.P.A.’s own chemical safety experts, chose not to remove from use — Mr. Wheeler assured lawmakers in a written statement that the agency was “committed to fully evaluating this pesticide using the best available science.”
Yet the agency under Mr. Wheeler’s leadership had already challenged a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordering the E.P.A. to ban the pesticide. This month, the court ruled in favor of the challenge and ordered a new hearing in the case.
E.P.A. officials did not respond to a request for comment on this article.
Mr. Adler said that Mr. Wheeler’s experience in Washington has helped him avoid waving red flags in front of lawmakers. But ultimately, he said, Mr. Wheeler is committed to fulfilling the president’s agenda.
“There is a tendency to assume if someone is reasonable they’re going to agree with you,” Mr. Adler said. “Wheeler has a very conservative view of environmental regulation and how it should be handled, and is very much in line with this administration’s overall regulatory philosophy.”
Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.
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