The Senate on Thursday confirmed former coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as the next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in a 52 to 47 vote, largely along party lines.
The addition to President Trump’s cabinet of Wheeler, who has served as acting EPA administrator since former chief Scott Pruitt resigned last July amid a slew of ethics investigations, has been in the works since November, when the president formally nominated him to the post.
“The Senate has taken decisive action to confirm Andrew Wheeler as administrator of the [EPA],” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., tweeted. “As acting administrator of [the EPA], he has prioritized commonsense policies that protect our air & water, while allowing our economy to grow.”
Wheeler’s nomination – and his time as acting EPA administrator – has not been without controversy as many Democrats and environmental activists have criticized him for his close ties to the coal industry and for his push to deregulate a number of environmental rules and safeguards implemented by the Obama administration.
“Senate Republicans have officially put a coal lobbyist in charge of protecting our children from the dirty air and toxic water created by his corporate polluting clients,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement on Thursday. “With each rollback, Wheeler is stacking the deck in favor of the polluting corporations who formerly employed him, leaving our families to pay the price of more toxic pollution with their health.”
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was the only Republican to oppose Wheeler’s confirmation.
“While Mr. Wheeler is certainly qualified for this position, I have too many concerns with the actions he has taken during his tenure as Acting Administrator to be able to support his promotion,” Collins said in a statement. “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.”
Wheeler began his career at the EPA’s Information Management Division before going on to serve as Chief Counsel to Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Ok., and then as a lobbyist at the law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels, where he represented controversial coal producer Murray Energy. Trump nominated him in October 2017 to be the EPA’s deputy administrator.
During his time as acting EPA administrator, Wheeler has proposed a slackening of the carbon limits on power plants and an easing of the fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. He has also sought to make new coal-fired power plants easier to approve, undo the legal justifications for curbing mercury emissions from power plants and to limit the federal government’s power over protecting small waterways
Wheeler’s push to deregulate, however, has been paired with an easing off of some of Pruitt’s more controversial regulatory plans, such as one to ease the emissions rules for long-haul trucks. Last week, Wheeler also put forth a plan to enact tougher limits on nitrogen-oxide emissions from heavy-duty trucks.
His confirmation on Thursday was greeted with praise by the industry he used to represent, who see him as an ally in the fight to roll back the regulations enacted in Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
“Andrew Wheeler has been seen as a thoughtful leader who understands the need for sensible environmental policies,” Michelle Bloodworth, the president of the coal industry group America’s Power, said in a statement. “His long experience in public service demonstrates his integrity in serving EPA’s mission. We congratulate Administrator Wheeler, and look forward to his continued leadership at the EPA.”