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Former Coal Lobbyist Andrew Wheeler Confirmed to Head the EPA

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Andrew Wheeler at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Jan. 16. CSPAN / YouTube screenshot

The Senate voted to confirm former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as official head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Thursday.

Wheeler has run the agency since July, when he replaced former administrator Scott Pruitt following a resignation prompted by numerous scandals. As acting administrator, Wheeler has confirmed the fears of environmentalists that he would be a "smarter" threat, pursuing President Donald Trump's deregulatory agenda without the distraction of Pruitt's more obvious corruption.


"Unlike with some nominees, we do not have to speculate about what Mr. Wheeler will do in office," Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) senior vice president for political affairs Elizabeth Gore told The Washington Post in an email. "From his actions as acting administrator for the past eight months, we have clear evidence of his agenda: undermine rules to limit toxic mercury, allow more smog and water pollution, and roll back protections against the threat of climate change. The senators who voted to entrust Mr. Wheeler with our environment know exactly what he will do with that power."

The Senate voted to confirm Wheeler 52 to 47, almost entirely on party lines. Republican Maine Senator Susan Collins was the only member of her party to vote against Wheeler's confirmation.

"I believe that Mr. Wheeler, unlike Scott Pruitt, understands the mission of the EPA and acts in accordance with ethical standards; however, 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," Collins said in a statement.

Some of Wheeler's most controversial acts include rolling back Obama-era emissions standards for cars and light trucks, replacing Obama's landmark Clean Power Plan with a version that would both increase greenhouse gas emissions and cost more than a thousand lives a year due to air pollution, weakening the protections of the Waters of the United States rule, and allowing coal plants to emit more mercury.

"His actions worsened the air we breathe, jeopardized the water we drink and increased our exposure to toxic chemicals," Natural Resources Defense Council senior director of federal affairs John Bowman said in a statement.

California Air Resources Board leader Mary Nichols, who has negotiated with Wheeler over changes in vehicle emissions standards and whether the EPA would challenge California's waiver under the Clean Air Act to make its own, stricter regulations, said the difference between Pruitt and Wheeler was all style and no substance.

"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," Nichols told The New York Times. "The only difference really is that he is more polished and more professional to deal with."

Many Republicans and industry representatives, on the other hand, praised Wheeler's efforts.

"He's been a very solid follow on to Scott Pruitt." Republican energy lobbyist Michael McKenna told The New York Times. "He's followed through in a fairly aggressive fashion on everything Scott started."

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