WASHINGTON — Andrew Wheeler, president Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, faced sharp questions Wednesday from Democrats who painted him as a danger to clean air and water laws as he steers President Trump’s agenda of rolling back environmental regulations.
Taking the stand before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Mr. Wheeler vigorously defended his work over the past several months rolling back Obama-era regulations, including the replacement of a broad plan to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, known as the Clean Power Plan, with weaker rules.
His opening remarks were nearly drowned out by demonstrators shouting “Shut down Wheeler, not the E.P.A.” The protesters were escorted out of the hearing room by Capitol Police officers as Mr. Wheeler began speaking.
Mr. Wheeler has been the agency’s acting administrator since his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, resigned in July amid ethics scandals. Before that, he was the deputy administrator. Mr. Trump nominated Mr. Wheeler last week to formally take over as head of the E.P.A.
“Mr. Wheeler is certainly not the ethically bereft embarrassment that Scott Pruitt proved to be,” Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the committee, said in his opening remarks. At the same time, he and other lawmakers pressed Mr. Wheeler on the string of regulatory rollbacks as well as his and Mr. Trump’s positions on climate change.
“The scientific community has said the threat of climate change is one of the great crises facing our planet,” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont said. “Do you agree?”
Mr. Wheeler said he believed that climate change is occurring, and that humans have an effect. But he told the committee: “I would not call it the greatest crisis, no sir. I would call it a huge issue that has to be addressed globally.”
He later told Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, that on a scale of one to 10, his concern about climate change is at a level of “eight or nine.” He argued that the E.P.A. under his leadership is addressing the challenge of rising carbon emissions. Mr. Wheeler repeated the Trump administration’s finding that its plan to revise the Clean Power Plan would still reduce planet-warming emissions by 34 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
However, a Harvard University study published yesterday disputed that, finding that the Trump administration’s plan would be worse for the planet than doing nothing at all. The study found that greenhouse gas emissions would “rebound” under the new policy by delaying the retirement of coal-fired power plants. Carbon emissions could rise in 18 states by as much as 8.7 percent by 2030, compared to having no carbon policy at all, the study found.
Mr. Wheeler pushed back on those numbers, telling lawmakers, “That is not what the career people at the agency are telling me.” Later in the hearing he said. “I believe we are moving forward on a proactive basis.”
He also addressed recent findings that carbon dioxide emissions have spiked in the United States over the past year. According to the findings by the research firm Rhodium Group, emissions rose 3.4 percent in 2018. That’s the largest uptick in U.S. emissions in eight years.
Mr. Wheeler has frequently pointed to the fact that greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 2.7 percent between 2016 and 2017 as proof that the Trump administration is protecting the environment while deregulating. Yet that dip occurred before President Trump officially took office and was largely driven by market forces.
On Wednesday Mr. Wheeler said he attributed the recent surge to an exceptionally hot summer and cold winter but said he believes the larger downward trend will continue.
Mr. Wheeler also won high praise from Republicans for rolling back the so-called Waters of the United States rule, which many farmers opposed, saying it would apply overly burdensome regulations to their land. Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the chairman of the committee, said Mr. Wheeler has done an “outstanding” job leading the E.P.A. over the past six months and praised him for “common sense regulatory proposals.”
Wednesday marked the 26th day of the partial government shutdown that has put thousands of federal workers on furlough without pay. Environmental groups had demanded that the Senate postpone Mr. Wheeler’s hearing until the shutdown ends.
Mr. Wheeler said he recalled when the government shut down while he was working at the E.P.A. in the early 1990s and said his heart goes out to employees currently affected by the shutdown. “I’m really looking forward to our furloughed employees coming back to work,” Mr. Wheeler said. He said the agency is still on the job for emergency actions including in places like California where E.P.A. workers are aiding in the aftermath of major wildfires.
This week, four Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee said they were concerned that E.P.A. employees who should not be working had been assigned to help the nominee prepare for his hearing.
Senator Carper on Wednesday noted that the shutdown had slowed cleanup work at Superfund contamination sites, halted most inspection activities and put an end to new chemical safety evaluations.
“I do not believe that giving the acting administrator a speedy promotion is more urgent and more important than protecting the public from contamination to our air and water and lands,” he told Mr. Wheeler.
John Konkus, a spokesman for Mr. Wheeler, shared a legal opinion prepared by the Office of Management and Budget that found Mr. Wheeler may prepare for and participate in his confirmation hearing and that he may also receive support from E.P.A. workers.
“Acting Administrator Wheeler’s participation in the scheduled hearing is necessary for the Congress’s funded function to be effective (and his absence from his own confirmation hearing would significantly damage the Committee’s confirmation hearing), and is therefore necessarily implied to continue during E.P.A.’s lapse in appropriations,” Mark R. Paoletta, general counsel for the office, wrote.
Mr. Wheeler, who was a longtime aide to Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, before becoming an energy lobbyist at Faegre Baker Daniels in Washington, is largely seen as a steadying force at the E.P.A., which was rocked by turbulence under his predecessor. Mr. Pruitt was at the center of at least 13 federal investigations before he stepped down.
Mr. Wheeler has, for the most part, continued down the policy path that Mr. Pruitt set to unravel most of former President Barack Obama’s environmental agenda. Since taking the helm of the E.P.A., Mr. Wheeler has proposed to relax federal protections for streams and wetlands, ease controls of mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants, and eliminate restrictions on new coal plants that are expected to make it easier to bring more coal power online.
Under Mr. Wheeler’s leadership the E.P.A. also has proposed reversing Mr. Obama’s clean car standards, one of the most important federal government tools for reducing planet-warming emissions.
Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, in a statement called Mr. Wheeler a threat to the environment. “Mr. Wheeler fully embraces President Trump’s anti-environmental agenda,” he said. “His policies will lead to dirtier air and water and unchecked climate pollution.”
Mr. Wheeler’s nomination is supported by leading business groups including the United States Chamber of Commerce. Neil L. Bradley, the chamber’s chief policy officer, wrote in a letter of support for Mr. Wheeler that the acting administrator had “proven to be a steady hand, and has demonstrated effective leadership while advancing regulatory reforms alongside continued strong environmental protections.”
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