The Senate on Thursday confirmed Andrew Wheeler as head of the Environmental Protection Agency on a 52-47 party-line vote, clearing the way for him to move forward with implementing major regulatory priorities of the Trump administration, including finalization of a new "waters of the U.S." rule and a year-round waiver for E15. 

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was the only member of her party to cast a “no” vote on the nomination. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., did not vote.

Collins announced Wednesday she had decided to oppose Wheeler’s confirmation. “Since last August, the EPA has proposed to roll back environmental protections, including determining it is no longer ‘appropriate and necessary’ to regulate mercury emissions from power plants, halting efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks, and replacing the Clean Power Plan.”

She added, “There is no doubt that the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change pose a significant threat to our state’s economy and our natural resources, from our working forests, fishing, and agricultural industries, to tourism and recreation.”

Republicans, however, said Wheeler is well qualified for the position. “He’ll be a good steward of the environment without punishing our states, without punishing our farmers, without punishing our job creators,” said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.

Wheeler worked for Inhofe for 14 years, first on his personal staff and then at the Environment and Public Works Committee, where he served as staff director. Wheeler also was a lobbyist for coal and other energy firms at Faegre Baker and Daniels from 2009-2018. He began his career in 1991 as a special assistant in EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics.

Wheeler was originally confirmed as deputy administrator of EPA and then took over as acting administrator last July, after then-Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned when faced with about a dozen allegations of ethical impropriety, including renting a condo from a lobbyist and using his position at the agency to try to get his wife a job at Chick-fil-A.

Wheeler faced a touchy situation Wednesday when Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told the House Agriculture Committee an EPA rule to allow year-round use of E15 would probably not be out before the summer driving season. He said Wheeler had told him that the government shutdown had delayed the agency’s efforts.

Wheeler disputed Perdue’s assessment almost immediately, and Perdue backtracked, putting the two agency heads on the same page. The E15 rule is important to biofuels groups and Midwestern senators from both parties. Appearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee Thursday morning, Perdue quipped, "I was overruled by the acting administrator," when asked about the timing of the E15 decision. 

Shortly after the confirmation vote, American Coalition for Ethanol CEO Brian Jennings said in a news release that Wheeler should “expeditiously release a legally defensible rulemaking for E15 use year-round and recommit to finalizing the rule by the June 1 summer driving season. There are less than 100 days until June 1, leaving no time for EPA to waste in publishing a proposed rule in the Federal Register for public comment and to finalize the rule before the low-(Reid Vapor Pressure) season kicks in.”

Another priority for farm groups as well as mining companies and developers is finalizing replacement of the Obama-era WOTUS rule, which expanded federal jurisdiction over wetlands and streams. 

Democrats slammed Wheeler in floor speeches Wednesday and Thursday accusing him of rolling back regulations on mercury and not taking climate change seriously.  

“In the wise words of Hank Williams, Jr., ‘‘We need a little less talk and a lot more action,’’’ Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Wednesday. “Andrew Wheeler has repeatedly shown no interest in acting. In fact, he wants to take us backward — and is taking us backward — on climate change.”

EPW Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., however, said that under Wheeler’s leadership, “EPA has put forward common-sense proposals to roll back punishing regulations and still protect America’s air and water. He is committed to protecting both human health and the environment.”

Agriculture groups, pleased with Wheeler’s commitment to reduce regulations on farmers — exemplified by the new proposal to rewrite the “waters of the U.S.” rule — largely supported Wheeler’s nomination. In a letter to EPW in January, 63 groups said “it is hard to imagine a more qualified individual for the role of EPA Administrator.”

Environmental groups opposed Wheeler’s confirmation, saying he wants to weaken standards on mercury emissions and automobile fuel economy.

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