Last week, the U.S. Senate held a confirmation hearing for Acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler in the midst of the Trump Administration’s shutdown of EPA and much of the rest of the federal government.
“I am honored and grateful that president Trump has nominated me for the position of administrator,” Wheeler said to begin the hearing.
In the background, a sound of shouting erupted and then the pounding of a gavel. “Please restore order the committee room!” the chairman said.
Protesters chanted, “Shut down Wheeler, not the EPA!” before being forced out by capitol police.
Andrew Wheeler is a controversial choice to run the Environmental Protection Agency because he formerly worked as an attorney and lobbyist for a coal mining company, Murray Energy. He also represented several other polluters regulated by EPA – including a uranium mining company, Energy Fuels Resources; a liquid natural gas export firm, Bear Head LNG Corporation; a chemical manufacturer, the Celanese Corporation, and several others.
Since his appointment as acting EPA administrator in July, Wheeler has worked to roll back environmental regulations in ways that could save his former clients billions of dollars. For example, he proposed the elimination of Obama-era regulations on carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants; the relaxation of EPA controls on mercury pollution from coal; and a weakening of federal rules for the management of coal ash waste.
Despite these apparent conflicts of interest, Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota was among several Republicans who voiced support for Wheeler during the hearing. Cramer said he saw nothing wrong with a former coal lobbyist running EPA.
“I would suspect that your further work in industry prepared you well for this job, and I want to appreciate that,” said Cramer. “And I just want to propose some scenarios – like, should we bar farmers from being Secretary of Agriculture? Should we bar doctors from being the head of Health and Human Services? Or attorneys from being the Attorney General?”
Here was Wheeler’s response: “I agree with you, I don’t think we should ban farmers from being the head of the USDA.”
Not mentioned during this exchange is the fact that while it is the mission of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promote farming, it is not the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency to promote the coal industry. According to the agency’s website, “The mission of EPA is to protect human health and the environment.”
Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, slammed Republicans for holding a confirmation hearing on the EPA administrator while Trump’s shutdown means that EPA employees can’t work or collect paychecks.
“I would like to use my time to talk about this shameful and unnecessary government shutdown,” Van Hollen said. “We’re now 26 days into it – the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. My understanding is that there are about 13,000 EPA employees who are currently furloughed. Is that correct?”
Wheeler: "Approximately. Yes, sir.”
That means 13,000 federal employees are not enforcing environmental laws, inspecting pollution sites, and testing pesticides and other chemicals to protect the public.
During the hearing, Wheeler asserted that he supports the EPA’s cleanup plan the Chesapeake Bay.
But Maryland Senator Ben Cardin said this:
“To me, it’s not possible under these circumstances for EPA to carry out their mission to protect our environment, clean air, and clean water,” Cardin said.
The Senate is scheduled to vote on Wheeler’s appointment as EPA administrator next month, and the Republican majority is expected to confirm him.