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Dems Challange Trump EPA Nominee       01/17 06:09

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the 
Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday called climate change "a huge 
issue" but not the "greatest crisis" and drew fire from Democrats at his 
confirmation hearing over the regulatory rollbacks he's made in six months as 
the agency's acting administrator.

   Republicans on the GOP-majority Senate Environment and Public Works 
Committee mostly had praise for Andrew Wheeler, who has served as the agency's 
acting head since Scott Pruitt's resignation in July amid ethics scandals. The 
committee chairman, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., called Wheeler "very 
well-qualified" to take the job.

   But Democrats pressed Wheeler about his work as a lobbyist helping an 
influential coal magnate meet with Trump administration officials before his 
nomination to the EPA and his moves on deregulation and on what they said was 
his inattention to the growing dangers of climate change.

   "You seem to be consistently doing things that undermine the health and 
safety of this nation," Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., told Wheeler.

   Markey asked him why he was pulling back on regulations that proponents say 
protect human health and the environment.

   "I believe we are moving forward" on protections, Wheeler responded.

   Wheeler cited changes he had initiated to roll back future mileage standards 
for cars and autos and to ease Obama-era clampdowns on dirtier-burning 
coal-fired power plants.

   He said EPA staff, whom he did not identify, had concluded that those 
rollbacks would ultimately lead to health gains. Environmental groups and 
formal assessments from the EPA and other agencies have contested that, saying 
the changes would increase pollution and increase harm to people and the 
climate.

   Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said the rollbacks in car mileage standards and 
toxic mercury emissions under Wheeler were examples of unsafe deregulation and 
went beyond what industries themselves wanted.

   Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., noted Wheeler had failed to mention climate 
change in his initial remarks to lawmakers.

   "Do you agree that climate change is a global crisis?" Sanders asked, 
shouting at times.

   "I would not call it the greatest crisis," Wheeler said. "I would call it a 
huge issue that has to be addressed globally."

   Wheeler told lawmakers that he had yet to read a massive government climate 
change report released late last year that emphasized man-made climate change 
was already underway.

   Wheeler said he had received one staff briefing so far on the climate change 
report. The work of the EPA and other government agencies, the report stresses 
the massive economic toll expected from increasingly severe wildfires, 
hurricanes and other extreme weather under climate change.

   Wheeler said the news media had seized upon "worst-case scenarios" of the 
climate report.

   "You are a former coal industry lobbyist that is sitting here," Markey 
responded. "That's the worst-case scenario, what you are proposing here" for 
easing Obama-era rules meant to clamp down on climate-changing fossil fuel 
emissions.

   Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa and other Republican lawmakers, by contrast, praised 
Wheeler for a move to remove federal protections for millions of miles of 
wetlands and waterways and other proposals. Republican lawmakers said the 
protections had burdened farmers and others.

   The grandson of a coal miner, Wheeler worked for the EPA in the 1990s and 
later as a longtime Republican Senate staffer.

   Democrats pressed Wheeler about his lobbying before joining the EPA, saying 
his work for coal companies should disqualify him from leading an agency that 
regulates coal.

   Wheeler's lobbying clients included coal magnate Bob Murray, who pushed hard 
on the Trump administration after the 2016 elections to grant a series of 
breaks for the sagging domestic coal industry.

   Wheeler accompanied Murray to a March 2017 meeting to pitch Murray's list of 
desired rule rollbacks and other breaks for coal to Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

   Wheeler told senators that his main work for Murray had been on health 
benefits and pensions.

   "I did not work on the plan. I do not have a copy of it. I saw it briefly," 
Wheeler said, referring to Murray's wish list.

   Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., displayed a blown-up version of a photo 
taken of the meeting with Perry, showing Wheeler at Murray's side.

   A second photo showed Murray's rollback plan in Wheeler's hands.

   Murray had sought some of the coal breaks that the EPA under Wheeler has 
since acted on. That included Wheeler signing a rule easing federal regulation 
of toxic coal ash, redoing an Obama rule that pushed electricity providers to 
move away from dirtier-burning coal plants and targeting an Obama rule limiting 
emissions of toxic mercury from coal plants.

   A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, 
filed an ethics complaint Tuesday with the EPA's Office of the Inspector 
General alleging that Wheeler's oversight of those and other rollback proposals 
at EPA may have violated his government ethics pledge to abstain from 
regulatory decisions affecting his former lobbying client for at least two 
years.

   EPA spokesman John Konkus called the accusation "baseless" and "wrong" and 
said Wheeler works with EPA ethics officials and follows their guidance.


(KA)

 
 
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