Then-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler testifies at a hearing titled Oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on May 20, 2020 in Washington, DC. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler will face questions as his agency faces legal challenges and criticism for easing enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic and rolling back vehicle emissions rules. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Pool via Getty Images)
Speaking to a Democrat-dominated Senate panel Tuesday, Andrew Wheeler, the former Trump administration Environmental Protection Agency head, described himself as a “strong proponent” of the Chesapeake Bay, said he accepted that climate change is occurring and pledged to uphold state laws including the Virginia Clean Economy Act if appointed to Virginia’s top environmental post.
“I have not looked at the act in terms of changes, and I have not discussed with anybody in the administration changes for that act,” Wheeler told the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee. “It is the law of the state, and as the law of the state, I will implement it.”
As Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s contentious pick for state secretary of natural and historic resources, Wheeler, who lives in Fairfax, has attracted outsized attention amid Virginia’s normally staid cabinet approval process since his nomination was announced earlier this month.
Senate Democrats, who hold a narrow two-vote margin in that chamber, have indicated they intend to block his confirmation, which they see as an assault on not only Virginia’s environmental protections but their party’s climate-driven agenda to cut carbon emissions.
Wheeler’s tenure as EPA chief within President Donald Trump’s administration was marked by a string of controversies over dozens of rollbacks of environmental rules, including the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan; a proposal to cut federal funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program by 90 percent; and an EPA rule opposed by many scientists that would have cramped the use of studies in rulemakings when underlying data weren’t made public.
During nearly an hour of questioning, Wheeler defended his prior decisions at the EPA.
The Clean Power Plan, he insisted, had been halted by the Supreme Court, although he said he believed “it went beyond the confines of the Clean Air Act.”
He characterized the proposal to slash the Chesapeake Bay budget as “a political issue between the White House and Congress”; instead, he said he had focused “on trying to find additional funding for the bay,” ultimately securing “well over a billion dollars during my tenure at the EPA to support bay programs throughout the whole geographic area.”
And on the EPA rule governing use of studies, he told the Senate panel that “I firmly believe that if a regulatory agency is going to use a scientific study as the basis for a new regulation, people should be able to look at the study and the data underlying it.”
Some Democratic senators pressed Wheeler on the opposition he has received from career scientists and EPA officials, both during his tenure at the agency and in the wake of Youngkin’s pick of him for secretary of natural resources. More than 150 former EPA officials this month sent a letter to the Virginia Senate urging them to reject Wheeler’s appointment, accusing him of “pursu[ing] an extremist approach” and “methodically weakening EPA’s ability to protect public health and the environment.”
“Why do you think you’re such a lightning rod of controversy?” asked Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond. “Because I’ll be clear, what I’ve heard today, particularly on things that are important to me, all sound good.”
Wheeler responded that “I don’t think the things that I did at EPA were covered very well by the press” before relaying a story about a newspaper that he said refused to write any positive news stories about the Trump EPA.
“I faced that on a daily basis, that our positive things were never covered,” he said.
Other senators asked about specific policies and approaches Wheeler intends to pursue as a cabinet member.
In response to a question from Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, about what strategies the secretariat would use to help Virginia meet its 2025 bay cleanup goal, Wheeler said he would work with communities that have combined sewer overflow issues, find “creative funding” approaches for small and medium-sized communities and focus on the agricultural sector, where the largest pollution reductions need to be made.
On the future of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon market involving 10 other Mid-Atlantic and New England states that Virginia joined followed 2020 legislation, Wheeler was more cautious. Youngkin has pledged to withdraw Virginia from RGGI, another move that has sparked backlash from Democrats and environmentalists.
The governor “has through his executive order directed the Department of Environmental Quality to do an assessment of RGGI, which they have already started. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of that process to see what the staff recommends and what they have to say on RGGI,” said Wheeler. He also noted that “there are other ways of addressing greenhouse gases if the state does decide to withdraw from RGGI, which I understand part of that decision would be up to the legislature.”
Pressed by Morrissey later in the meeting on whether RGGI withdrawal would require legislative action, Wheeler said he thought the Department of Environmental Quality report would address that issue and said he wouldn’t engage in “legal analysis” himself.
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