By Rich Heidorn Jr.
WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats pressed acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on the agency’s efforts to reverse Obama administration policies on vehicle and power plant emissions Wednesday, complaining he failed to demonstrate a sense of urgency to address climate change.
Wheeler was nominated by President Trump on Jan. 9 to replace Scott Pruitt, who resigned as administrator in July.
In a two-and-a-half-hour confirmation hearing before the Environment and Public Works Committee, Wheeler was repeatedly challenged by Democrats over EPA’s dismantling of the Clean Power Plan and its plan to weaken fuel economy standards for vehicles. But with only 47 votes, Democrats and the two independents who caucus with them will be unable to block Wheeler’s confirmation.
About a quarter of the audience in the small hearing room wore the red T-shirts of the Moms Clean Air Force and Wheeler’s opening statement was difficult to hear over the shouts of “Shut down Wheeler, not the EPA!” from protestors outside the room. The shouts began after two protestors inside the room were ejected.
Republicans praised Wheeler’s nearly two decades of experience at EPA and at the Senate committee, which oversees the agency. Wheeler began his EPA career during the George H.W. Bush administration and later served as staff director and chief counsel to Republicans on the committee.
“I think that’s really strong qualifications for this job,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said. “You come highly, highly qualified.”
Republicans also praised EPA’s efforts under Wheeler and Pruitt to clean up long neglected toxic waste dumps and to tighten regulations to protect children from lead. Wheeler called himself a “conservationist,” saying, “I am an Eagle Scout. I’m an avid camper [and] hiker.”
But the nominee found little support among Democrats. Although several praised him for being more responsive to their offices than Pruitt, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said “his policies are almost as extreme.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), pressed Wheeler on his work as a lobbyist for coal magnate Robert Murray, suggesting he had been disingenuous when he previously minimized his role in Murray’s “action plan” to save coal-fired electric generation. Aides displayed blow-ups of photos of a meeting at which Murray and Wheeler discussed the plan with Energy Secretary Rick Perry. (See Photos Show Murray’s Role in Perry Coal NOPR.)
In August, Wheeler announced EPA would replace the Obama Clean Power Plan with the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) Rule, which defines the “best system of emission reductions” as heat-rate efficiency improvements that can be achieved at individual coal plants. The CPP set state emissions limits and encouraged switching to natural gas and renewables. Wheeler cited EPA projections that ACE will reduce U.S. power sector CO2 emissions up to 34% below 2005 levels, but Democrats said it will allow higher emissions than the CPP. (See EPA: CPP Replacement Could Boost Coal-Fired Power by 6%.)
In December, EPA proposed changing its cost-benefit calculations to eliminate the “co-benefits” of reducing pollutants other than those being targeted. Had the proposed methodology been in place in 2011, EPA said, it would have prevented the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which pushed many coal generators into retirement.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he didn’t understand why EPA was seeking to change its cost-benefit methodology, saying “it seems to me the mercury standards have worked.”
Wheeler said EPA had to re-evaluate the rules in response to a Supreme Court ruling but said he didn’t expect the change to affect mercury emissions.
“Under our preferred option, I do not believe there would be a weakening of the mercury standards at all as far as the equipment that has already been deployed and implemented across the board,” Wheeler said. “I get accused of rolling back the Clean Power Plan. I don’t think you can roll back a regulation that never took effect. And on MATS, I don’t think you can roll back a regulation that’s been fully implemented. I honestly don’t believe that equipment will be turned off or removed under our proposal.”
Carper was skeptical. He said Delaware would be in noncompliance for nitrogen oxide even if it eliminated all pollution from vehicles and businesses because it is downwind from several coal-fired generators in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. “The cruel irony is each of those plants had installed the technology to stop the pollution. … They turned it off. They still have it turned off. And when we [asked] EPA to do something about it, you declined. So, forgive me for being concerned and cautious on this front.”
In response to questioning by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Wheeler agreed that the climate is changing and that humans have an impact on it, saying “I wouldn’t use the ‘hoax’ word” as Trump has used to dismiss climate change.
“Do you agree with the scientific community that climate change is a global crisis that must be addressed aggressively?” Sanders pressed.
“I believe that climate change is a global issue that must be addressed globally,” Wheeler responded. “I would not call it the greatest crisis. … I consider it a huge issue that has to be addressed globally.”
Wheeler also conceded the forest fires that have charred parts of California had “some relation” to climate change but said “the biggest issue is forest management.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) rejected Wheeler’s contention, saying “the reason these fires are so much longer [is] because the summer season is so much hotter and longer.”
“Our entire ecosystem … our fishing, our farming, our forests, are at grave risk.”