WASHINGTON Andrew Wheeler, President Donald Trumps nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, told a Senate panel Wednesday that he does not believe climate change is the greatest crisis and vowed to continue the administrations agenda of rolling back environmental regulations.
Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist who replaced Scott Pruitt to become acting EPA chief last year, faced pointed questions from Democratic senators who sought to cast him as a lackey for the fossil fuel industry and polluters. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who focused on Wheelers previous work for a coal firm, described him as someone who has his thumb, wrist, forearm and elbow on the scales in favor of the energy industry.
Speaking before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Wheeler defended his efforts to relax clean air and water rules as necessary to spur economic growth. He highlighted nearly three-dozen different efforts to roll back regulations since Trump became president.
Through our deregulatory actions, the Trump administration has proven that burdensome federal regulations are not necessary to drive environmental progress, Wheeler said at his confirmation hearing. Certainty, and the innovation that thrives in a climate of certainty, are key to progress.
He also defended his resistance to making climate change a top priority and echoed Trumps misleading claim that wildfires are mostly a result of poor forest management, rather than worsening drought, increasing development and a warming planet.
Pressed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to explain his position on climate change, Wheeler did not deny the established science that humans are causing global warming. Nor did he repeat Trumps claim that climate change is a hoax. Ive not used the hoax word myself, he said.
But he showed no sense of urgency to tackle the issue. I would not call it the greatest crisis, no, sir, he said to Sanders.
A REPORT published in November, compiled by 13 federal agencies including the EPA found that global warming poses a profound threat to human life, the environment and the nations economy. It warned that if significant measures are not taken to rein in climate change, the damage from more severe weather could shrink Americas economy to a tenth of its size by 2100.
Asked if he had read the report, Wheeler said he had been briefed once by his staff. He argued that the EPA is already taking steps to reduce carbon emissions, which a recent study found have increased in the last year after years of decline.
Because Republicans hold a 53-seat majority in the Senate, Wheeler is expected to sail to confirmation and become the permanent replacement for Pruitt, who was forced to resign last year under a cloud of ethics investigations.
Republicans praised him for rolling back a series of Obama-era environmental regulations that they consider burdensome and expensive to implement.
Wheeler was also asked about the EPAs proposal to relax Obama-era fuel economy standards that were designed to get the nations cars and trucks to average more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025. In August, the administration proposed freezing mileage targets in 2020 for six years.
The Trump administrations proposal would benefit the oil industry. But automakers, who once backed the plan to weaken the standard, now worry the dispute will become tied up in the courts for years, or result in different standards in different states.
At the hearing, Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., the top Democrat on the committee, said he had heard that the Trump administration now plans to finalize a 0.5 percent annual increase in the stringency of the standards, a rate that is 10 times weaker than the current rules. This proposal, he said, would only lead to extensive litigation and uncertainty for our automakers, and thats not a win-win outcome. Its really more of a lose-lose.
An EPA spokeswoman said that no final decisions have been made about the agencys plans. But if the agency does go forward with this proposal, its likely to encounter stiff resistance from California.
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