Amid Pruitt controversy, Congress confirms EPA’s No. 2

Amid controversy around Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, the Senate has confirmed the nominee for the agency’s No. 2 position.

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In a party-line vote, the Senate confirmed Andrew Wheeler to be the EPA‘s deputy administrator. Some members of Congress indicated after the vote that Wheeler could be next in line to take over at EPA if Pruitt resigns or is fired by the president.

“It’s entirely possible Andrew Wheeler could be sworn in as acting administrator before he serves a single day as deputy administrator,” the top Democrat on the Senate committee with oversight of EPA, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said Thursday.

This week’s vote on Wheeler was even more high-profile because of the swarm of controversy surrounding Pruitt in recent weeks, including questions about his living arrangement in a Capitol Hill townhouse connected to lobbyists and his spending on travel and security since he took over at the agency. More than 100 members of Congress, including three Republicans, have called for Pruitt to resign and the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee has asked the EPA to provide documents on Pruitt’s spending decisions and living arrangement to the committee.

Pruitt tweeted to congratulate Wheeler and said in a statement he looks forward to working with Wheeler to implement the president’s agenda.

The previous acting deputy administrator Mike Flynn, who was at EPA for more than 36 years, retired last week.

Wheeler worked at the EPA during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, according to an EPA press release, as a staffer for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and worked as general counsel for conservative Sen. James Inhofe, R-Ok., who wrote a book about global warming called “The Greatest Hoax.”

Wheeler is also a principal at Faegre Baker Daniels consulting firm and was registered as a lobbyist for companies like Murray Energy in 2017, according to federal lobbying records. Murray Energy’s website calls it the largest coal mining company in the country.

Nine environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote to senators urging them to vote against Wheeler earlier this week.

Some Democrats said that Wheeler should be vetted more thoroughly in case Pruitt resigns and he ends up taking over at the EPA. The ranking member of the committee that considered his nomination, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, said that more questions have been raised about actions at the agency since Wheeler’s confirmation hearing.

Other Republicans, including the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said they were confident that Wheeler will be a good addition to the agency.

“Andrew Wheeler is well qualified to serve in this critical position at the EPA,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-WY, said.

Another Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, said she had more confidence in Wheeler than Pruitt to lead the agency.

One of the controversies with Wheeler’s nomination has been his connection to Murray Energy’s CEO, Bob Murray.

Murray has publicly said that climate change is not a problem and that carbon dioxide, which the EPA lists as the primary greenhouse gas, is not a pollutant.

In a PBS documentary that aired last October, Murray said he had written the administration an “action plan” to help the coal industry and said that the administration had already “wiped out page one” of his requests. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s office obtained a copy of that memo, reviewed by ABC News, which lists 14 policy priorities such as rolling back the Clean Power Plan and withdrawing the finding that forms the basis of the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

Carper said that Wheeler committed to regulating greenhouse gases.

The EPA did not say Thursday when Wheeler will be sworn in.