The Senate on Thursday voted 52-47 to confirm Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who has worked to weaken and delay national and global environmental protections, as the head of the EPA.
Wheeler has served as acting EPA administrator since July, when the previous head, Scott Pruitt, resigned under a cloud of more than a dozen federal ethics investigations.
Like Pruitt, Wheeler has proposed regulatory changes at the EPA that favor industry and chisel away at former President Barack Obama’s climate policies, including the Clean Power Plan designed to slash domestic greenhouse gas emissions.
“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.
“There’s no one more qualified in America,” Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., said of Wheeler, who previously worked on Inhofe's staff. “He’s always been concerned about nature. He was an Eagle Scout. He’ll be a good steward of the environment without punishing our states.”
The vote elevates Wheeler to head the primary federal agency responsible for regulating or overseeing air and water pollution, toxic waste sites, vehicle emission standards, ozone standards and greenhouse gases, including the highly potent methane gas.
It also marks the increasing political polarization over the EPA, which, since it was established in 1970, has seen its administrators confirmed with broad bipartisan support.
Watch: Protesters interrupt confirmation hearing on Trump’s EPA pick
Carol Browner, who led the EPA in the Clinton administration, was confirmed by voice vote. Christine Todd Whitman under President George W. Bush and William K. Reilly under President George H.W. Bush were confirmed without opposition — 99-0 and 100-0, respectively. And Obama’s first EPA administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, was confirmed by unanimous consent.
Manchin: Not Impressed
Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., the ranking member on the Natural Resources Committee and a strong backer of the coal industry, voted against Wheeler on Thursday. He previously voted to confirm Pruitt as administrator in 2017 and to confirm Wheeler as deputy administrator last year.
But Manchin said he was not impressed with what Wheeler had done on air and water degradation.
Senate Democrats had clashed with Wheeler over several proposals made during his time leading the EPA, including over his understanding of climate change.
In response to written questions from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Wheeler said he had read the Fourth National Climate Assessment — a report the government released in November, documenting the sharp dangers of a warming world — but said the news media does not understand the topic.
He said he would wait for more information from EPA officials on how to respond to climate change.
“I still have additional briefings from my career staff planned which have not yet taken place, so I am reserving judgment on actionable findings,” Wheeler wrote. “One of the key takeaways in my opinion is that the press did not fully understand the various scenarios and I believe more work needs to be done communicating the findings in assessments such as these in the future.”
Asked by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., how climate change and wildfires relate, Wheeler said he was expecting more “briefings on the causes of wildfires.”
Climate researchers established the connection between climate change and wildfires decades ago. And communities and companies, including the California utility firm PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy in January due to wildfire liabilities, feel the damages.
Since July, the EPA has moved to scrap the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era regulation to limit domestic power emissions, and set less stringent fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles.
Wheeler defended those decisions in writing to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. “In order to help mitigate the causes of climate change we are moving forward with both the ACE proposal and the SAFE Vehicles proposal and we intend to finalize them both this calendar year,” Wheeler wrote, using the shorthand for his utility-emissions and fuel-economy proposals.
The Trump administration’s clean energy and fuel efficiency rules would slash less greenhouse gas from the atmosphere than the Obama-era regulations they replaced.
Manchin surprised at least one of his colleagues with his vote.
“I’m assuming you’re an ‘aye,’” Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said to Manchin on the floor toward the end of the vote.
“You’re assuming wrong,” Manchin replied.