The atmosphere of Andrew Wheeler as Acting EPA administrator compared to the days of Scott Pruitt being in charge of the giant agency are vastly different. And it was clear this week when Wheeler went before Oklahoma U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe and others on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Wheeler was previously a staff director and aide to Inhofe who formerly chaired the committee. His appearance was not as caustic as the last time Pruitt, the former Oklahoma Attorney General, testified before the committee. It was almost like a homecoming for Wheeler.
“If there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are ready to put Scott Pruitt in the past,” reported the Washington Post. “Right away, there was a stark contrast between Wheeler’s first testimony since taking the helm of the agency and his predecessor’s last appearance before the Senate in May before he left the EPA.”
Despite his decade-long career as a lobbyist, Wheeler’s reception was obviously warmer—-even from Democrats. Some still pressed him about his lobbying career but for the most part, Democrats actually welcomed him.
The top Democrat said he was pleased the person testifying before the panel was Wheeler and “not his predecessor.”
“When Mr. Wheeler took the helm of the agency all of 25 days ago — it seems like 25 months ago … The Washington Post noted that we were trading an administrator who was known for ‘for sipping organic juice infused with kale’ for an acting administrator who collects Coca-Cola memorabilia, ” Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) said.
Another Democrat, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island also used his time to criticize Pruitt, telling Wheeler, “I viewed your predecessor’s tenure as one characterized by tawdry personal behavior in office, a desire to do damage to the agency that he led, a flagrant absence of transactional integrity and horrible environmental policies. I see you as a remedy to three of those four. So in that sense, I welcome you.”
Carper also cited the ethical controversies that finally ran Pruitt out of office. “I’m encouraged that there will be a number of differences between Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Pruitt in the way that they approach this important leadership role. For example, I don’t expect to hear as much as a peep from Mr. Wheeler today about used-mattress shopping or Chick-fil-A or fancy moisturizers,” he said.
Sen. Inhofe had his opportunity to question Wheeler.
Click to watch Sen. Inhofe’s remarks.
Inhofe: First of all, I liked your opening statement. You know, it’s certainty that we want and that we deserve that have not been historically given. I want to elaborate a little bit with a question asked a little bit differently than the comment by the Ranking Member.
Last year EPA, along with the Department of Energy, granted 33 of 34 hardship exemptions to refineries due to high RIN costs. EPA was sued on the one petition it denied, and ended up losing in court. Opponents of these exemptions say that these refineries aren’t under a hardship–even though they’re paying more than their payroll to comply with these mandates that are out there. But if you look at the fact that EPA has now lost twice in court for not approving exemptions, the EPA is simply applying the law when it does grant them and they should be approving more of them.
How does EPA thread this needle?
Wheeler: And it is a very difficult needle to thread. We are following the statute and we’ve now had two court cases that have ruled against the agency on the granting of the exemptions. We also have appropriations language to remind us to gran the small refinery exemptions. One area we are trying to do is to provide more transparency around the decisions that we are making on the small refinery exemptions and I think that will help clean up a lot of the concerns around the issue.
Inhofe: I think it will. Now, President Trump and you have committed to returning EPA to cooperative federalism, which I applaud. Unfortunately, some have confused that principle with “coercive federalism,” where one state dictates their standard to all others. When it comes to the auto industry—and we talked about this just a minute ago—the last administration handed over car emission standards to California, but other states didn’t get to weigh in. Because of this, Oklahomans are paying more for their SUVs and trucks to subsidize electric cars so California drivers can afford them, which I find personally a little offensive. I applaud the EPA and NHTSA for revisiting the midterm review, done at the last minute by the Obama Administration.
Now, EPA doesn’t have any statutory direction for its auto regulations, but NHTSA does. Do you think EPA & NHTSA should harmonize their regulations so technological feasibility and consumer cost are considered?
Wheeler: Yes, Senator, I do and that’s what we’ve done.
Inhofe: Alright and lastly, I had the honor of attending your opening statement. It was a very good statement. You had all the employees. I don’t know how many hundred were there, but you got a very fine response from your opening remarks to EPA employees and you mentioned the fact that “the United States is the gold standard worldwide for environmental protection” and that pollution regulated under NAAQS has dropped 73 percent. You mentioned this in your opening statement. Nobody ever talks about the success that we have that we’re riding on. Meanwhile our economy has expanded three times over and the pollutions regulated dropped some 73 percent. The problem that we had in the 8 years of the Obama Administration was the use of regulations to punish industries and states to reshape our economy with little to no benefit to the environment.
Can you elaborate on how you can have both a clean environment without handcuffing our economy—how you plan to do that.
Wheeler: Absolutely and I think that goes to my comments on certainty. I think if we provide more certainty, not just in the regulatory community, but to the American people, so that everybody understands the decisions that we’re making and why we’re making them, we’ll continue to improve the environment and provide that certainty that businesses are looking for.
Inhofe: Yeah, that’s good. And aren’t there instances when regulations – like New Source Review can actually get in the way of reducing pollution?
Wheeler: It can, it can be a disincentive for installing cleaner technologies and we’re trying to stop that.
Inhofe: Good. Thank you very much.