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EPA nominee Andrew Wheeler’s confirmation hearing was all about climate change

Democrats and even some Republicans pressed Wheeler on greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Trump’s pick to lead the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, testifies before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Senate Democrats used the Wednesday confirmation hearing of Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, to push him on the agency’s negligence on climate change, its rollback of regulations designed to protect Americans’ health, and his uncannily close ties to the fossil fuel industry.

“Do you agree with the scientific community that climate change is a global crisis?” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) asked Wheeler repeatedly.

“I would not call it the greatest crisis, no, sir,” Wheeler responded. “I consider it to be an issue that has to be addressed globally.”

“Substantively, I think you have your thumb, wrist, forearm, and elbow on the scale,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) told Wheeler, referring to Wheeler’s past work as a coal lobbyist. Some Republicans raised concerns about climate change as well.

At a few points, the hearing was interrupted by protesters and chants of “shut down Wheeler, not the EPA.” Eight protesters were arrested.

Wheeler, for his part, emphasized in the hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the EPA was revising Obama-era environmental regulations like the Clean Power Plan and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards to comply with court rulings. It was a signal that he plans to continue to methodically advance Trump’s agenda, but in a much less bombastic way than former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who resigned last year in disgrace after numerous allegations of ethics violations.

Some Democrats even praised Wheeler for his collegiality and for being much more accessible than Pruitt. However, others said he was tilting regulations in favor of the sectors the EPA is supposed to regulate, for instance, weakening pollution regulations on coal-fired power plants.

Before his work as a coal lobbyist, Wheeler was a staffer at the EPA and on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He was also an Eagle Scout and emphasized his love of hiking and camping. “I do consider myself a conservationist,” he said.

Unlike Pruitt, Wheeler did acknowledge that humans are driving changes in the climate and that it must be addressed. When Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) asked Wheeler how he rated climate change in importance on a scale of 1 to 10, Wheeler said it was “8 or 9.”

Yet global emissions continue to rise, and scientists recently warned that we’re running out of time to accelerate the global effort to limit warming to a less disastrous level. Instead of joining this effort, the EPA is working to relax rules on emissions. And given that Wheeler answers to President Trump, who has dismissed climate change as a concern, it’s unlikely we’ll see any radical changes at the EPA anytime soon. The Senate is expected to confirm Wheeler soon as the new head of the agency in a vote.

Republicans aren’t ignoring climate change, but they aren’t pressing for aggressive action either

Several Republicans brought up climate change during the hearing, noting their concerns about the rise of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States in 2018, which Wheeler had disputed.

“We heard that there was an emissions rise in 2018, which you attributed to a cold winter, a hot summer, and also to more economic activity,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). “You said you expect that to go down over time. What gives you the confidence that if this economy continues to roll the way we think it will, that will actually happen?”

Wheeler said that greater energy efficiency in the power sector along with fuel economy standards would continue to drive down emissions.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) suggested that technology is the main solution to greenhouse gases and asked Wheeler about the EPA’s role in fostering innovation and using tactics like capturing carbon dioxide to extract more oil or make building materials.

Wheeler said that all of EPA’s programs encourage innovation. “One thing that’s important on the regulatory side is that we don’t try to tip the scale one way or the other, for example, on energy sources,” he said.

That Republicans are acknowledging climate change at all is a sign that the political winds on the issue have shifted and they can no longer afford to be passive on the issue if they want policies on their terms. And innovation seems to be the key thread uniting Republican responses to climate change.

As my colleague David Roberts pointed out, coming up with new technologies is indeed a key aspect of fighting climate change, but for Republicans, it may be a way to head off more ambitious climate policies. Already, momentum is building in the House for taxing carbon as well as a Green New Deal to fight climate change.

During the hearing, Democrats revealed some of their strategy to pressure the EPA on climate change going forward. Since they lost seats in the Senate, Democrats emphasized key state-level disputes, like the fight between California and the EPA over fuel economy standards. Vehicles are a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions, and California wants to retain its authority to set tighter emissions rules than the rest of the country. The Trump administration wants one standard for the country as well as a much more relaxed fuel economy target than the one proposed under President Obama.

Lawmakers from both sides also lamented the ongoing partial government shutdown. Most of the EPA’s 13,000 employees are furloughed, but some are still on the job to deal with responses to disasters like the fallout from California’s wildfires last year. Some employees were also recalled to help the EPA meet court-ordered deadlines for producing environmental regulations.

“Under these circumstances, it’s not possible for EPA to do its mission,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD). “I want to underscore how tragic this shutdown is.”